At a spirited Jackson City Council meeting in late February, Mayor Martin Griffin championed the creation of a registry of residential property owners not living on their properties—a list of landlords and owners of empty houses and apartment buildings. In advocating the registry and its related rules and fees to the Council and the public, Griffin said it would help the city to go after deadbeat property owners.
"We've been too willing to accept the bottom of the barrel,” he was quoted as saying before the decisive 6-1 vote in its favor. “It's time we step up and retook our city.”
The mayor has a point: everyone with a stake in Jackson’s future knows its blighted properties pose a serious threat to renewed vitality. The question is how best to deal with the problem.
Unfortunately, the registry does little if anything to address blight. Instead, it squanders scarce resources compiling a list of property owners the city already has on file, gives the city authority it’s already had for decades to deal with problem properties, and imposes a needless tax ($30 per property and $10 per unit) that will be passed on to already cash-strapped renters.
There must be a better way.
Information already available
A stated key purpose of the registry is to create a list of all non-resident residential property owners, complete with contact information, for city officials to have at the ready. In reality, the city already has this information, and officials know how to access it. If not, thousands of nonresident Jackson property owners wouldn’t recently have received letters in the mail at their home addresses demanding they fill out the registry form and pay their fees.
Specifically, property owners in Jackson are required to provide their names and contact information to the city assessor’s office for inclusion on the city’s tax rolls. Search the tax rolls for those who don’t claim the homesteading exemption, and voila—you’ve got a registry of Jackson’s non-resident residential property owners.
Which raises the question: if the city already has the list, why go to the trouble and expense of recreating it?
Rules already on the books
Another justification for the registry is that it spells out rules of the road for property owners and allows the city to inspect and if necessary to take action on distressed properties.
Quoting from the new chapter of the municipal code, “[I]t is in the best interests of the health, safety and welfare of the city and its residents to require that all non-owner occupied residential dwellings or units be registered and inspected to ensure safe, secure and sanitary living conditions for those residing in non-owner occupied residential dwellings or units.”
Who could disagree with looking out for our residents’ health, safety and welfare? Of course we all want the city to be aggressive in dealing with dilapidated buildings that create unsafe conditions and drive down everyone else’s property values.
The thing is, the city has had the necessary rules on the books to address these problems for decades. City officials—specifically the police chief, fire chief, and head building inspector—have since at least 1977 been empowered to inspect properties suspected of falling into disrepair and to revoke certificates of compliance in cases where serious problems exist. Without a certificate, an owner can’t legally sell his or her property. In cases of noncompliance, the city reserves the right, if necessary, to condemn and demolish the problem building.
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s the relevant section of the municipal code, which has been in place since the Carter administration: “In order that they may perform their duties to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of the occupants of dwellings and of the general public, the chief building official, chief of police and fire official are hereby authorized to make or cause to be made such inspections of dwellings or dwelling units as are necessary to enforce the provisions of this article.”
Which raises a second question: If the necessary rules are already in place, why add a whole new section to the municipal code?
Taxpayer money wasted
In justifying the new registry fees, city staff says that more money is needed to conduct inspections—and that the registry will provide the needed funds.
"It's an important tool for the city of Jackson to use to save its neighborhoods and save its city," City Manager Larry Shaffer was quoted as saying at the February Council meeting.
The problem here is that the city already has a funding stream to pay for housing inspection and enforcement: it charges the property owner for inspections. This has been the model for decades.
When inspection fees haven’t covered inspection costs, the city has traditionally raised the inspection fees. Indeed, it took this action in February, raising the initial inspection fee to $175, or by 40 percent. If the city can’t make the economics of inspection work after a 40 percent fee hike, it has two reasonable alternatives: explore ways of cutting costs or go before taxpayers and ask for a further fee increase. The latter may be unpopular with property owners, and particularly owners of blighted property, but think of it this way: who should the city charge to address blight? The owners of problem property? Or renters in other buildings?
Let’s be clear: Jackson is going through tough times. We need the city to aggressively and efficiently deal with the very real problems it faces. Passing redundant, wasteful regulations and assessing needless fees that will be borne by renters (many of whom may be least able to afford it) to pay for new layers of bureaucracy is the wrong way forward.