APD Series 3

Private property rights are a personal favorite of mine. My appreciation of local control is something that must have grown along with the crops in the fields around me. Something in the air, if you will. Eminent domain is an issue I took particular interest in while working for the Georgia Senate Majority Leader in 2010. So as you might imagine, I have some thoughts about code enforcement and the police power it imbues to the state vs individual rights as held by the property owner. Code enforcement was the second half of the second week of my Citizens’ Police Academy. This is a big discussion point in my NPU meetings and the source of very heated debates among neighbors. The classroom experience didn’t disappoint either. Code enforcement is an amusingly spicy topic, but this piece will be shorter than others as the presentation was pretty short.

In Atlanta, Code Enforcement can be called on neighbors if you have a) a fully mobile car regularly parked on grass instead of a driveway or the street b) an immobile car parked outside- covered or uncovered, in the process of restoration or not, high dollar or a junker c) if your paint is peeling on your home.

I kid you not- Atlantans of a certain level of affluence like tight yards to go with their tight asses. I mean, I get it from a real estate perspective. We all want our neighborhoods to look nice so we can keep property values high. However, it was with absolute GLEE I sat in the classroom as I heard my classmates of color ask about police power in regards to code enforcement on their neighbors working on their cars IN THEIR OWN YARDS. You could see how much this didn’t seem right on their faces. It was like they had tasted something rancid. It was kind of beautiful.

In those moments you could almost see the wheels of a conservative lean emerging. Almost. No promises. The GA GOP will probably do something dumb and racist and alienate them before they can fully embrace the beauty of limited government. 

I further appreciated the realization my white classmates received regarding the code enforcement process takes months, if not years, in court. Like other parts of city departments, Code Enforcement is understaffed and (I’d be willing to bet money) underfunded. Code Enforcement’s inability to be responsive to the residents who wish to weaponize them against their neighbor employ them inevitably contributes to the feeling of distrust and apathy some city residents feel regarding the police force overall. 

I asked about illegal dumping of trash. It’s a challenge in some parts of my neighborhood but not specific to just my corner of Atlanta. Code Enforcement is working to set up cameras around the city in ‘heavily trafficked areas’ in order to address this. I’ll talk more about cameras in the next piece.

I will say my feelings about code enforcement are nuanced. There’s certainly a place for them as a form of protection- more from public health than for property values for me though.

While I didn’t call Atlanta code enforcement, I did call Fulton County Public Health on my neighbor after my husband and I realized we had a family of rats the size of my 8lb calico cat living their best lives in our backyard. I’d dealt with the rats for some months, but after one of my cats went missing, I ran into a neighbor down the street who was putting out rat poison. He told me the neighbor diagonal of my backyard hadn’t cut his yard ‘since the city was called on him’ a few years ago. The neighbor putting out rat poison told me the errant neighbor was a Dekalb LEO who owned the home but didn’t maintain it. (I tried to check on this but can’t confirm this to be true.) The neighbor putting out rat poison was the reason why the front yard was cut regularly and he had lived in the neighborhood since the 80s. He knew my cats, and knew I had the backyard with the basketball hoop. He encouraged me to look over the wall into the jungle of a yard where he asserted the rats were hanging out. I was actually too short (even with a step ladder), but my husband was able to see and video the jungle yard, turning the video over to Public Health. If you want to see the video, I’m happy to share it on a personal basis, I just didn’t want to put my neighbors’ backyards up on the website. Just trust me, the jungle yard required machetes and waders to walk through. The weeds were taller than me and I’m 5’3”. I reached out to friends in Dekalb County to see if I could have a personal conversation with the LEO before calling Public Health, but after seeing the video, my Dekalb friends encouraged me to call the county, so I did. The jungle is no more, and the rats have moved to another more inviting locale, thankfully.

I understood how the neighbor I spoke with was motivated to cut the other neighbor’s front yard. My husband and I saw the overgrown nature of one of the neighbor’s yard immediately behind us last summer, so we cut it ourselves. We’ll be doing that again this weekend or next. It’s weed eater height- no machetes required. We learned some months back the lady who owns the home passed away. Her children aren’t maintaining the yard, and so we hoped/hope keeping the yard mown would address the rat problem. It didn’t last year, due to the jungle next door. This year we are hopeful to keep the snakes at bay for this spring and summer with a regular schedule of our cuttings.

This prevalence of seniors aging in place with distant children or no relatives at all is another challenge my neighborhood faces. Seniors whose needs haven’t been addressed is the legacy of an aging city council member who should have been put out of office a decade or so ago, but community resource needs will be something I’ll discuss in the next piece. 

For now, please know that I learned the city of Atlanta has strong code enforcement laws, it’s just a matter of enforcement and accountability being painfully slow. Ironically, I saw the presenter of this particular presentation coming out of a city council office I was heading into earlier this week. It seems that there is a challenge from the solicitor’s office of holding folks accountable. That’s what I love about Atlanta- you think you’re talking to the one person who can resolve the challenge and then you learn there’s an entire group of folks you have to convince to make any meaningful change. We seem to enjoy tripping over bureaucracy here.  As a result, without the necessary staff or changes in court proceedings, residents don’t have to worry much about enforcement. If the City of Atlanta ever does want to enforce code, I feel certain the slumlords investor-owned properties that are so prevalent in my area would be a serious revenue generator for the city. If only! On the hyper local level, my NPU sent out a list of code enforcement properties that were to be presented in a Code Enforcement Administrative In-Rem Review Board Hearing on Thursday, April 28, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. So maybe this means there will be some forward movement. Hard to tell at this point.
Either way, I hope that the citizens of the city can be more discerning about calling Code Enforcement on one another. While this is a police power, it seems like a heavily burdened one with greater likelihood of weaponizing neighbor against neighbor, particularly rife with abuse in differences of class, rather than neighbor against poor acting slumlords businesses that run rental slums homes. In either instance, it appears I can rest knowing that it will take literal years before anything resembling justice will be encountered as a result of any of those calls. My fear of the encroaching hand of the state crossing the property line into personal property rights remains abated. But knowing the City of Atlanta, I’m uncertain about whether we would agree upon the definition of where that line of state vs. personal property rights would fall. I find the city really enjoys a lot of power and movement in gray areas. 

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