Councilman raises alarm on substandard housing calling for citywide inspection

Published 9:09 am Wednesday, August 9, 2023

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During the LaGrange City Council work session on Tuesday morning, Councilman Leon Childs raised the alarm on ongoing housing issues in LaGrange, asking the council to support a citywide inspection to deal with substandard housing.

While the issue is a concern throughout the city, Childs said it affects his district, District 2, the most.

“That is where your most distressed areas are,” Childs said.

“I come on behalf of the people to sound the alarm and try to get the council, the mayor, city manager, attorney and everybody on the same page about this Issue. It didn’t just start today,” Childs said.

Childs said in 2002 then-Mayor Jeff Lukken and then-City Manager Tom Hall led the council on a tour of some of the most distressed areas of the city. More than two decades later, current Mayor Willie Edmondson reignited the issue in 2023 with a similar trip with city leaders and stakeholders.

“In 2004, the mayor and council vowed to begin a program that would address substandard housing issues,” Childs said.

He said the council knew If nothing was done to address housing in LaGrange that it would limit economic growth.

“That report was 20 years ago,” Childs said. “It’s sad to say the issues with surrounding housing standards have gotten 10 times worse.”

Childs said he has heard many complaints about substandard housing but hasn’t seen anyone going into the homes for inspections.

The only way these homes are inspected after initial approval is during a citywide inspection or if there is a complaint, which many renters are reluctant to do because they fear being kicked out in retaliation, Childs said.

Childs called for a citywide inspection of properties to have them brought to code based on International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC). He also called for more subsidized housing.

“We have nothing against development coming here,” Childs said, noting the high costs of new homes and apartments. “We must look out for all of the people in LaGrange, not [just] the ones that are doing well, but we must look out for the ones that are struggling and trying to get where we are.”

Childs said he plans to speak with City Attorney Jeff Todd to determine what can be done about slumlords within the city.

Councilman Nathan Gaskins said the inspections are premature as many of the homes haven’t been reassessed for taxes in 25 years and some have never been assessed properly.

“I think it would be premature for the city to inspect anything if the county is not even charging taxes for these things,” Gaskin said. “I’ve got homes with the same square footage as other homeowners that are paying three and four times more in taxes to the county…

“Until we get the tax appraisal situation addressed, as this councilman sits, I’m not going to put any undue burden on anybody in the city upgrading or changing any of their property unless it’s first properly assessed by the assessor’s board.”

Edmondson noted that some developers are trying to improve some of the distressed houses.

“They’re doing a whole lot for that community. Now, if we can get other developers to do the same thing. We know we have some real estate guys here that own a lot of property and by owning that property, some of them have fallen into disrepair,” Edmondson said.

Edmonson said houses can be red-flagged so that the city can intervene when rentals are not up to code, but the problem is that tenants are reluctant to report what is going on.

“Some of them are afraid to report it because if they do, their landlord will go up on the rent, or the landlord will evict them, and they have nowhere else to go,” Edmondson said.

Edmondson said some of these houses are renting for well under market value because of issues tenants are choosing to not report. If the issues were fixed, their rent would likely go up.

“If we take it upon ourselves and just inspect every house in LaGrange, then we’re going to then cause a lot of people to be outdoors,” Edmondson said.

With the current housing market in LaGrange, if improvements are made to distressed houses, it could potentially price their occupants out of their homes. If they had the money to pay increased rent, they could already find a better home to rent, Edmondson explained.

“There isn’t anybody in this room that would live with some of the stuff these people are living with. We are the ones that are making policy and ordinance, so we should be able to do something about it so they don’t have to live like that,” Childs said.

Edmondson said that while the city can force landlords to bring properties up to code or shut them down, doing so would also likely displace their tenants.