I enjoy thinking and writing about cities, and I’m a bit tired of the status quo in our own. I don’t think things are as good as they could be right now, so this will be my spot to write about that. And now, a moment about blight.
I’m writing this particular column after being spurred to action by a recent WCTV article titled "COT addressing public safety through demolition.” It covers a recent effort by the city to ramp up its condemnation and demolition process of abandoned buildings. There are a lot of abandoned buildings in Tallahassee, and there are even more vacant lots. That’s not unusual for a small Southern city, but it’s an issue nonetheless. Drive through any neighborhood surrounding the three major universities and you will get a taste of a crisis decades long in the making. You will find buildings that have been abandoned by their rightful owners. Those properties have fallen into abject disrepair as the years have gone on. They carry massive fines in place from code enforcement action. Some of the buildings have been boarded up by the city. Some have burnt down. Most of them are open and available to the elements as well as to whomever might be passing by.
The City of Tallahassee has a storied history in attempting to deal with the issue. As early as November of 1997, a staff writer for the Tallahassee Democrat investigated this exact issue. Ms. Jan Pudlow wrote an article about the dramatic rise in the number of abandoned buildings within the city. She focused on one house in particular which concerned neighbors had reported, 1432 Colorado Street, which was described as being “home only to rats and crackheads.” In response to her questioning, the city’s legal staff agreed to redouble their efforts to tackle the issue through all available means. About a year later, she checked back in and reported that nothing had really changed. In 2003, the sitting city commission looked into a series of reforms to get blighted properties out of the hands of absent owners. The problem continued, and now we’re here, some twenty years later. COT is addressing public safety through demolition.
There is a strict process that an abandoned building goes through before it is slated for demolition. Buildings will only be demolished when there are legitimate reasons to do so relating to their structural integrity and overall safety. However, there are still flaws in the system. Since the city does not use the existing legal means to dispossess owners of blighted properties, the only option for houses that reach this point is demolition. There is no Land Bank as there is in Detroit. There is no “City Houses for Sale” list like there is in Milwaukee. There no program in place to put these buildings back into productive use like there is in Baltimore, a city set to begin selling blighted buildings for a dollar to be rehabilitated and put back on the tax roll. There is simply put, one outcome. At some point, the land eventually accrues enough back taxes to be sold off by the county, but most buildings are demolished by this point. It’s been two decades since Ms. Pudlow wrote her exposé. The building at 1432 Colorado Street is no longer a problem for neighbors. It was taken down some time ago through the city’s demolition program. In its place is now an overgrown vacant lot used for illegal dumping.