There are nearly 50 percent more residential units (apartments, condos, and homes) listed as “vacant” in South Carolina than there were 10 years ago, according to U.S. Census data.
Leaders from cities across South Carolina say that means an increase in abandoned and dilapidated homes that they’re struggling to handle. They view abandoned properties as costly burdens that have a much higher risk of fire, vagrant crime, and decreased property values.
Overall, 223,000 nonseasonal residential units were listed as “vacant” in South Carolina in 2010, up from 149,000 in 2000. That change (50 percent) was close to the national average of 51 percent. However, that number includes for-sale properties that are not considered abandoned. There is no data available on the number of properties that are neglected statewide, so the Census uses the data to detect trends rather than determining a set number.
If an abandoned property is not up to code, most towns notify the owner of the violation. If the owner does not act, some cities– such as Columbia and Charleston– will send crews to fix the problem (which can include mowing the grass, among other things) and bill the property’s owner for the service.
“Oftentimes, we aren’t reimbursed for that,” Columbia’s Planning & Development Director Krista Hampton said, “We pursue that money with collection agencies. But we don’t always get it back.” She said Columbia maintains about 500 lots per year. Others are simply too run down to save.
“One of the largest challenges is determining who owns the property,” Hampton said, “Because of foreclosure proceedings… in these times, it’s becoming even greater challenge for us.”
According to the Municipal Association of South Carolina (MASC), which represents county and city government interests at the state level, there is little city officials can do if they are unable to identify the neglected property’s owner. The only other option for the city at that point is to wait until the structure becomes dangerously unsafe before getting a court order to demolish it.
That’s also an expensive solution, says MASC government affairs liaison Warren Harley. “Generally, the court costs and legal costs leading up to that step… tacked on to the cost of actually removing the blighted building means tremendous cost involved,” Harley said.
The MASC is pushing the South Carolina General Assembly to give local governments more flexibility to deal with blighted properties.
Specifially, the organization is asking the legislature to allow for the option of “hazardous property receiverships.” Under this scenario, the city would ask a court to appoint a third-party receiver to maintain a property that is in violation of building codes. The receiver could be a developer, nonprofit housing organization, or other entity that would temporarily take control of the blighted property in order to clean it up. The third party could then lease out the property and collect rent.
After a period of time, the property would then be turned back over to the original owner (who would be responsible for paying for the repairs through a lien) or would be auctioned off if the owner refused or could not be found. The receiver would also be able to collect a 10 percent fee for its services.
“That would allow the city to begin making a dent in some of those situations where they are unable to move forward because of the sheer volume,” Harley said.
If the owner is not willing to turn the property over to a receivership once it has been deemed dangerous and unsafe, the court could order that owner to make the necessary fixes themselves. If not, Harley said the owner would forfeit their property.
However, he adds that would be extremely rare circumstances. “Most of these properties, the owner has walked away… anyway,” he said. “This property has been abandoned and the owner is gone.”
Similar programs already exist in Texas, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Harley said several legislators have agreed to sponsor legislation that would allow for the receiverships, but said he did not want to name them until the bill was filed.