Columbus City Council finally assigned a dollar amount to an American Rescue Plan Act-funded blight elimination program during its Tuesday night meeting, setting aside $500,000.
Interim City Planning and Community Development Director George Irby proposed the program earlier this year, and on Feb. 15 the council voted to put up as much as $1 million of its about $5 million ARPA funding towards blight remediation. However, the specific amount was contingent on matching funds from the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors.
An ARPA spending plan put forward by District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks on Monday includes $350,000 for the program, contingent on getting a “viable” plan from the city.
Tuesday, Irby submitted guidelines to the council, which were based on those set out by a recently completed Mississippi Home Corporation blight remediation program that was itself funded by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
“This is taken directly from the policy we used in the blight program that we did,” Irby said. “We had about $250,000 and were able to do about 15 to 17 properties.”
That program started in 2018, Irby said, and is being closed out now.
Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Taylor Stewart moved to give Irby $500,000 now, rather than waiting on Lowndes County to decide if it wants to participate. Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.
Irby’s new program will acquire blighted property, demolish any existing structures on it, and then attempt to market it to redevelopers who will put in affordable housing. Vacant and overgrown lots also qualify, according to the guidelines.
Acquisition costs are limited to the purchase price and related costs — such as legal fees — and a maintenance fee of $1,000 per year for three years will be put in place after demolition. The fee will be paid from program funds to the contractor or entity that does the work. The rules require it be maintained at least once per quarter.
The program requires demolition be handled by licensed contractors, and debris must be disposed of in state-licensed landfills. Demolition must be complete within six months of the city taking ownership of the property.
All acquisitions must be approved by the city council, Irby said.
Irby said that he will start by looking at Director of Code Enforcement Sasha James’ list of condemned houses and see if any of the owners will be willing to sell.
“This (plan) is not a catch-all, but it is a start,” he said.
Mayor Keith Gaskin said Irby’s proposal is a “living document” and will be changed as needed as the program gets underway.
“It’s not locked in to what we’re saying right now,” Gaskin said. “I feel like it’s a living and breathing document and that we’re constantly getting input. I’m sure the county will give us some feedback.”
Irby said he wants to set up an advisory committee made up of a “gamut” of people, ranging from neighborhood stakeholders to financial institutions to developers to both recruit redevelopment and also help prospective buyers get to a place where they can afford to buy housing.
“(The committee) would help us set up the framework to make the redevelopment happen,” Irby said. “They have the mindset, they deal with those situations every day.”