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Faces of Blight: This Macon code enforcement officer has some ideas to prevent blight

Macon-Bibb building code enforcement stretched thin

Macon-Bibb County Building Abatement Manager John Baker talks about building code enforcement with fewer resources.
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Macon-Bibb County Building Abatement Manager John Baker talks about building code enforcement with fewer resources.

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Building Blocks from Blight

The Telegraph is investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. Over the next few months, Telegraph reporter Samantha Max will profile local residents affected by blight in their own communities. If you’d like to be interviewed, you can email her at smax@macon.com or call her at (478) 744-4306.

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John Baker has inspected his fair share of blighted homes. As the building abatement manager for the Macon-Bibb County Business Development Office, Baker oversees a team of four inspectors who respond to dozens of phone calls and emails from rental tenants and concerned citizens each day.

Baker plans to retire at the end of March, but he’s not leaving Macon. The code enforcement officer has some suggestions he thinks will help the county not only combat blight, but also prevent it. Baker wants the county to enact legislation that would incentivize landlords to maintain their rental properties – especially absentee landlords who can be difficult to track down. He spoke with a group of residents concerned about vacant structures in their neighborhoods at a Historic Macon community meeting in February.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

“A lot of our challenges dealing with blight, number one, comes from defining blight, because blight is different to different folks. Some people who – well, you know, all of us live in a neighborhood. All of us travel in various areas. But, you know, most of us have some pretty set paths that we take in our life. And, so, you know, if we see – if we pass a gas station or a carry out every single day and the dumpster’s, you know, only emptied once a week, and there’s always litter on that site every time you go by it, I mean, that’s gonna be blight to some folks. Other folks live next door or down the street from a burned down structure that’s got four-foot-high weeds and, you know – and standing wide open, so it’s open to crime, all kinds of things, that’s gonna be blight to them.

“We’re two months into the year and we’ve already got 300 complaints so far – new complaints.

“Our staff has a little over 3,000 open cases. So, those cases vary from dilapidated structures, obviously. A few cases involve vacant lots, although we don’t heavily enforce vacant lots, just because of staffing and time. And then a lot of them are, you know, high grass and trash and stuff like that.

“There’s gonna have to be a real big effort to come up with the resources to deal with the existing blight. And I think there’s a lot of other agencies out there that can tackle that better than we can, trying to get the resources together to deal with those 1,500 structures that are still out there, that are – most of them are standing open. So, they’re also inviting crime, criminals and all kinds of stuff. A lot of them are close to schools. Many of them are close to other facilities, such as rec centers. We’ve got some right across the street from police stations, sheriff’s departments stations and parks and rec and all kinds of things. So, we’d like to see things targeted to try to clean those areas up, especially around the schools. But I think our big push is to try to get to the prevention stage, because, if the county was able to come up with all the resources that they could and take care of the 1,500 blighted structures that are out there today, in a year or two, there’s gonna be 300 more, and as the housing ages, as, unfortunately, we all age and move on somewhere to a smaller house or another area, those houses become vacant and then become dilapidated or vandalized. So, the problem will continue to evolve.

“Getting in the landlord’s pocket is going to be the most effective way of preventing that owner from ignoring their property. And the nice thing about that is, it works for those out-of-state owners much better than what our process works on now. We can’t get out-of-state owners to come to court. So they basically just communicate to us – if at all – by email or phone. So, we can’t get our hands on ‘em.

“I think the issue of blight is bad in Bibb County, but, again, if we don’t enact some programs to try to prevent future blight, that it’s gonna continue always be bad.”

Baker’s three proposals:

1. A rental escrow account that would allow the county to collect rent from tenants living in poorly maintained homes until their landlord makes necessary repairs to the property. All collected rent would be returned to the property owner only once the issues were addressed. Otherwise, the county would use the money to make the repairs, itself, or return the money to the tenants and suggest they move elsewhere.

2. A rental escrow account that would allow the county to collect a percentage of a homeowner’s insurance proceeds when the property burns down until the property is either rehabilitated or demolished. The owner would be reimbursed if the structure were fixed, or else the county would demolish the home with the money collected in the escrow account.

3. A rental property inspection program that would require rental property owners to register with the county for inspections every two to five years. Property owners would pay the county for the inspection and would be granted special privileges if they pass. If landlords fail their inspection, the county would continue to follow up to make sure they take necessary steps to maintain the property.

This story is part of a series in The Telegraph investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. Over the next few months, Telegraph reporter Samantha Max will profile local residents affected by blight in their own communities. If you’d like to be interviewed, you can email her at smax@macon.com or call her at (478) 744-4306.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. She joined The Telegraph in June of 2018 and reports on the health of the community. Samantha graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2018. As an undergraduate student, she interned for the Medill Justice Project, Hoy (Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language publication) and NPR-affiliate station WYPR in her hometown of Baltimore. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.
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