They don’t use a microphone in housing court, so the proceedings are muffled and hard to follow.
From the audible bits, there are tales of foreclosure, lost jobs, illness, bad investments, family problems and deaths with no heir willing to step forward.
Many times, the court cases involve homes no one wants or can afford to fix.
“You’ve seen the people who come in there,” said Robert Faulkner, the Macon-Bibb County Municipal Court judge who presides over the housing cases. “Some of them are just pure out destitute. Some of them have mental issues. Some of them are so old they can’t hardly walk. There are not a whole lot of rich landlords coming into our court anymore. You’re talking to some of the poorest of the poor.”
By the time many of the cases hit the courtroom, it has been months since the property was first cited for a violation — for offenses that can range from uncut grass and junk cars to caved-in roofs and missing front doors.
Many of the cases drag on for years as properties change hands, ownership isn’t clear or progress is made — but not enough to get into compliance with housing codes.
“One of the biggest problems we have is trying to track down who actually owns the house,” Faulkner said.
The judge can fine violators up to $1,000 and even order their arrest, but this rarely happens.
“We try real hard to get people to do what needs to be done without having to fine them,” Faulkner said. “My approach has always been, why fine someone $300 or $400 when they could take that and rehab the house and bring it into compliance, and I try to make that clear to people.”
1957 KNIGHTSBRIDGE ROAD
Genester Marshall was waiting patiently in court, even though her home wasn’t on the docket. She was there for the brick house down the street that had been vacant for years with a lot so overgrown it kept even vandals away.
“It’s just a sore eye for the neighborhood,” she said of the house at 1957 Knightsbridge Road. “You walk out your door and everyone else’s property is kept up, and you see it overgrown and vacant. It makes the neighborhood look run down.”
A “For Sale” sign appeared briefly, and Marshall reached out to the realty company.
“I tried to call and I never got a response from it,” she said. “And that is when I started calling the city.”
One of those calls gave her information about an upcoming court date.
“I went down there to see what was going on,” Marshall said.
There was not much to learn. The city said it tried unsuccessfully to reach an owner or responsible party and would have to keep trying. The case was continued for a couple of months.
“I know how the process works,” Marshall said months after the Feb. 20 court date. “I know it’s not an instant fix, and the entire Macon community experiences the same problem.”
The case file on Knightsbridge shows that the owner, Gerald Bray, is dead.
His last known address was a skilled nursing facility on Peake Road in 2008. That next year, no one paid the property taxes.
The file indicates Bray died without a will, no real heirs and no clear title on the house — part of the reason an attempt to sell the property fell flat.
The city advertised the property in June to give anyone who might have a claim a chance to come forward. The property likely will be back in court in October.
The city has said the only recourse may be to clean up the yard and leave the house, or possibly demolish the home and clear the entire lot.
“You can do something called an ‘in rem’ foreclosure, and that’s where you give notice to all the owners you can locate, you advertise in the newspaper and you take possession of the property through a legal means,” Faulkner said. “That is done sometimes.”
The cases that end up in Municipal Court are usually the ones with the most complications and fewest options.
Since January, the Telegraph has observed the twice-monthly housing court cases as the system moves through transitions prompted by the consolidation of Macon and Bibb County.
“It’s real difficult to determine who are the owners of the property anymore,” Faulkner said. “Some of these people don’t live in Macon, some of them don’t live in the state, some of these people are dead. So, we’ve got ownerless houses, I guess you could say.”
This can skew the timeline on how properties move through the system. Technically, the worst cases — usually those involving abandonment, fire or vandalism — could end up in court just a month or so after the problems are noted.
“As long as we have good service of the notice, they may take that case directly to court at that time. But most of the time we don’t have good service,” said John Baker, who recently took over the newly consolidated code enforcement office. “Many times at day 35, we’re still looking for someone, or the mail came back unclaimed or undeliverable. And then we’re trying to find out if there is a mortgage company or someone else out there we need to try and find.”
Heir cases — like the one on Knightsbridge — tie up a lot of resources trying to locate and notify people with a possible stake in ownership.
“We have people who have died and just left the house. And the heirs, none of them want the house,” Faulkner said. “And then you just have people who get where they can’t afford it anymore, and they just leave ... and abandon the house.”
A lot of these cases involve people who thought they lost a home through foreclosure or bankruptcy only to be told they are still responsible for the upkeep.
“The person who owned the property is still shown on the deed records as being the owner, but they were given notice to leave and they did,” Faulkner said. “So technically the bank owns the property.”
In a process known as a “zombie foreclosure,” the lender completed the foreclosure proceedings and the owner moved out, but the bank never filed a new deed showing the ownership change.
Legislation passed in 2008 — when the foreclosure crisis was peaking — requires lenders to record the new deed within 60 days of the sale, said Frank Alexander, an Emory University law professor and blight expert who drafted the statute.
“But they stripped out of the bill the sanction for noncompliance,” he said. “So yes, there is a statutory requirement, but there is no penalty.”
The issue is further muddied by a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that basically said a foreclosure isn’t complete until the lender decides it’s complete, Alexander said.
This leaves Faulkner in a bind when these cases come to housing court.
Often an owner comes in with the foreclosure paperwork and an assumption that the violations are not their responsibility. When the judge tells them otherwise, the owners are often sent back to the lender to try and sort things out.
“In some cases, the banks don’t exist anymore either,” Faulkner said. “Or in other cases, loans are transferred to other banks, and these transfers might not be recorded until a foreclosure occurs. So you really have a hard time figuring out who the lender is.”
Meanwhile, Faulkner explains that the yard will have to be cut or a broken window must be secured.
“The real problem is until the state changes the laws to give us the ability to No. 1, figure out who owns the property and No. 2, to put some teeth into it for the people who do own the property and don’t record their deeds, ... there’s really not going to be a whole lot that happens.”
Other cases involve people who don’t have the resources to make the needed repairs. Programs with funds to help with home repair have seen dwindling resources, too.
“We see all those kinds of things, and we try to work with people and be sensitive to those issues,” Baker said. “But probably the biggest, the immediate biggest problem with the economy downturn has just been people overextended. It was an investment. They bought investment properties, and when the economy went sour and they went underwater, it was just easier to walk away from it and leave us with it. And that’s in every community.”
Faulkner said investors, who never even saw a property in person or were caught up in the greed of others, were looking to make a quick flip on a property when the housing market was still rising.
He pointed out a house on Duncan Avenue that last sold for $12,500 in 2006. The property sold four times between 2001 and 2003 — starting at $30,000 and reaching a high price of $120,000. The house has a tree through the roof and missing windows.
“That’s the kind of things that will make a preacher cuss,” Faulkner said. “That is where you know the fraud came in. Houses just don’t do that. They just plain don’t do that.”
Code enforcement and the cases that could end up in court are very much in flux.
Consolidation of Macon and Bibb County moved code enforcement into the Department of Business and Development Services.
Previously, the city handled single-family homes in the city limits using its own code enforcement ordinances, while the county followed up on commercial property, apartment buildings and homes outside the city using the state-sanctioned International Property Maintenance Code.
Baker is now managing code enforcement in the consolidated government and wants to focus resources on the worst cases. This involves moving to a grading system of A to F, with A’s being given to properties in very good condition and F’s given to those that should be demolished.
“We’re focusing our energies on the C’s, D’s and F’s,” Baker said.
Other changes involve using door hangers in lieu of mailed notices as warnings for things like tall grass, junk cars, trash and debris.
“We’re trying to speed the process up ... for what we refer to as ‘yards and premises violations.’ We’ve had pretty good luck with this,” Baker said. “It enables (the inspectors) to open and sometimes close a case within just a matter of days instead of a couple of months.”
The idea is to resolve cases before they get to court and reserving the court option for owners who refuse to work with local government.
Funding remains a barrier to tackling blight.
“The mayor now is trying to (tear down) 100 houses a year,” Faulkner said. “But at 100 houses a year, it’s going to take us at least 10 years to even get close to catching up. ... It’s expensive to do the foreclosure, and then it’s expensive to tear the house down, and then you’ve got an empty lot and you still got to deal with that.”
Faulkner, who practiced real estate law before becoming a judge, wants the state Legislature to address some of the loopholes with recording deeds and completing foreclosures.
“We’ve got a lot of houses around here that are just falling in and in terrible shape,” he said. “Some of them are owned by lenders, and we can’t locate them because the recording laws in the state of Georgia are horrendous. I didn’t think so when I was doing real estate law. But back then, property always appreciated in value and everybody wanted you to know they owned this piece of property.
“Well, that’s changed, and the laws haven’t.”
To contact Debbie Blankenship, call 301-5770 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.