By JB Clark
VERONA – For the past four years, the Verona Board of Alderman has been cleaning up the city with code enforcement officer Shane Davis and now with Mayor Robert Trice in hopes of attracting homeowners and businesses.
When hired as code enforcement officer in 2009, Davis identified 54 abandoned or severely dilapidated structures in the city that needed to be addressed.
Since then, 62 homes have been demolished and others condemned, repaired or remodeled to meet city codes.
Davis and Trice both said the city’s problem with unattractive, overgrown, abandoned and dilapidated lots comes from decades of neglect and disrespect for the city itself.
They said a lot of the problems began with people who operated like slumlords, renting out many units, all in states of disrepair and often using those tenants behind on rent to attempt repairs at other properties. And, with slumlords operating in the next neighborhood or right next door, Davis said it was difficult to cite homeowners for open storage or an upholstered chair in their carport.
Now, with the new Highway 6 coming through town, Trice said Verona has an opportunity to attract business investment – but first, the city must look nice.
The code enforcement process begins when Davis receives a complaint and notifies a landlord of needed repairs or code violations.
If the landlord doesn’t address the problem, Davis will either send a certified letter or citation to the landlord, specifying a time limit for the violation to be addressed.
If the violation is still not addressed, the Board of Aldermen can take action.
If the amount of work needed to bring the property up to city code is 50 percent or more of the value of the structure, the Board of Aldermen can vote to have the structure demolished.
“I always encourage the aldermen to consider ordering the condemnation for repair of the property and if the repair doesn’t happen within the set time, the city can proceed with demotions,” Davis said.
Starting in 2009, Davis and aldermen began the legal proceedings to tear down abandoned homes with exposed insulation as well as substandard structures with poor utilities and fire hazards. A group of homes on Lindsey Court near Verona Elementary School was the first target. The homes had exposed walls and utilities and one had even caught on fire.
Davis said the substandard homes, when abandoned, often become places for homeless to squat or a breeding ground for criminal activity like drug sales and prostitution. All of the homes on that Lindsey Court block, owned by the same landlord, were set for demolition when the landlord didn’t make repairs.
“That was a victory for us,” Davis said. “That was a way to get the ball rolling.”
The city has kept focus on landlords, and now that Davis said the city has begun proceedings to address the final four severely dilapidated homes in Verona.
Since Verona has a high concentration of rental property and a high poverty rate, Trice said the city has trouble enforcing a lot of the codes.
Trice said he loosely estimates a dozen people own close to 50 percent of the city’s residential property.
“It’s been my experience that you can talk to property owners until you just turn gray with age and they won’t even move until you start legal proceedings to get something done,” he said. “The landlords don’t always help. They may not screen the renters and the renters aren’t invested in the property so they don’t keep it up.”
Looking to others
Davis’ next focus is to follow suit with many other cities, including Tupelo, in meeting with landlords and having them register with the city so Davis can do yearly inspections of their rental properties.
One property manager, Sammi Logan, manages about 250 rental units in Verona. The properties are the a part of the estate of Jay Suppiah who was killed by a gunman Nov. 30, 2012, at his rental property office on Raymond Avenue. Suppiah had begun working with Davis and the city to begin renovations and inspections of his properties and evict problem tenants before he was killed.
Logan added the city’s rental code to the leases for her properties last week and implemented a three-strike write-up process to be sure her units and her tenants are all following Verona’s codes.
She recently boarded up and “self-condemned” a dozen of the properties she manages on Clement Street to remodel and bring up to code so the whole area will be proper when she screens her next group of tenants to move in.
“We implemented security here,” she said, of her apartment complex on Raymond Avenue next to the old Bailey Motel.”So we don’t have drug deals in the parking lots and tenants breaking laws and all the stuff that used to go on. Now we can focus on Clement.”
She said making the improvements and spending the money up front has benefited them and attracted tenants who want to take care of the properties and communicate with her office when they have problems.
“Last year we had tenants owing $4,000,” she said. “Now that is down so much. These tenants now want to stay and they call and tell us if there is a water leak we need to take care of and want us to come over. That’s a big help. If they’re not putting in the work orders, we can’t fix the problems and then when Shane comes in to do the annual inspection we’re seeing the problem for the first time.”
She said it’s disappointing to see other landlords who aren’t cooperating with the city.
“Those same tenants we’ve had to throw out are going to them and they’re still coming to visit the people living in our properties and causing trouble,” she said.
The city recently hosted the first meeting with landlords to work on policies for renters. Davis said in 2014 he will begin meeting with business owners along Raymond Avenue, Main Street and Palmetto Road in the final phase of his plan to bring the city up to code.
“We can’t ignore that the city of Tupelo is investing heavily in South Gloster Street,” Davis said. “We’ve got the Highway 6 bypass project too. Not only will that benefit south Tupelo, but potentially north Verona.”
He said he will discuss cost-effective ways to upgrade the appearance of properties along the major roads in Verona.
Trice said once they have addressed the issues caused by years of neglect, they can work to maintain smaller code issues like appliances and upholstered furniture on porches and continue to make the city look nicer with the end goal of improving the quality of life, reducing the number of rental properties, increasing homeownership rates, reducing crime rates and attracting new business.