Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
City leaders are giving serious thought to establishing a commission to address deteriorating housing across Salisbury.
They also are looking closely at a commercial maintenance code in the downtown to address neglected properties.
Both subjects surfaced again Thursday afternoon during the first day of Salisbury City Council’s annual retreat, which winds up today.
In December 2006, the Community Appearance Commission and Neighborhood Leaders Alliance told the council their concerns about a decline in housing in core neighborhoods. They suggested creating a Housing Commission.
In October 2007, Downtown Salisbury Inc. recommended establishing a commercial maintenance code to address safety and aesthetic issues with some downtown buildings and lots.
The 2006 report led to the formation of a 17-person “Better Housing Committee” made up of city staff. The group, chaired by Fire Chief Bob Parnell, gathered information, took tours and formed three subcommittees.
A “regulatory” subcommittee recommended the city:
– Establish a Housing Commission.
– Create a registration and certificate of occupancy permit process for rental properties.
– Limit the time a property may be boarded up.
– Establish a “demolition-by-neglect” ordinance in National Register of Historic Places districts.
The City Council would appoint the five- to seven-member Housing Commission, which would:
– Review housing inspections, violations and penalties monthly.
– Serve as a review board for appeals of enforcement actions.
– Provide annual reports to the City Council on housing conditions.
– Develop housing improvement strategies with neighborhood associations, the Salisbury Community Development Corp., Salisbury and Rowan County housing authorities, Habitat for Humanity and other groups.
Property owners would face fines if their homes were boarded up longer than six months.
A financial subcommittee recommended the city consider buying some at-risk rental properties and pay for a rehabilitation specialist for the Salisbury Community Development Corp. It also suggested increasing grants for residential historic preservation and restoring money for neighborhood improvements.
The third subcommittee recommended looking at the organizational structure behind code enforcement and establishing a public awareness campaign to advertise a telephone hot line for reporting housing code violations.
Housing conditions “may be the most important issue we have in front of us,” Councilman Bill Burgin said. “… We have to have a plan in place, or we’re going to lose a lot of our housing stock.”
The city must have a strategy that shows individual homeowners and neighborhoods the city supports them and wants to protect their investments from neglected properties, he said.
When neighborhood leaders step forward, as they did in 2006, something has to be done, Councilman Mark Lewis said.
Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy, owner of a realty company, said he supports creating a Housing Commission and making sure rental properties meet minimum standards. He said a commission might also help in identifying problem renters.
Lewis and Mayor Pro Tem Paul Woodson said enforcement will be a main issue.
Joe Morris, city planning and community development manager, said 40 percent of the housing in Salisbury is more than 60 years old.
As for the downtown, city intern Carol Hickey’s research showed only three N.C. cities have adopted commercial maintenance codes: Hickory (2001), Reidsville (1994) and Gastonia (2004).
A commercial maintenance code would provide uniform maintenance standards for all structures in the central business district.
According to a draft, “the ordinance is also intended to protect the integrity of historic structures within the district and maintain a positive business climate to insure the economic viability of the district.”
The code would lay out standards for windows, awnings, exterior surfaces, roofs, weeds, trees, vines, landscaping, parking areas and exterior grounds, including lighting, parking lots, railings, driveways, curbs, sidewalks, gutters and graffiti.
Each violation would carry a $50 fine.
Hickey conducted an on-foot audit of each building and/or lot in Salisbury’s Downtown Mixed Use district. Ratings were good (no observable problems), fair (one problem) or poor (two or more problems).
Hickey reported that of 321 “property lots” observed, 97 (30 percent) had one or more problems under the draft commercial maintenance code.
Likewise, 66 lots (21 percent) had a fair rating, and 31 (9 percent) got a poor rating.
The most common problem found ó 46 times ó was window frames with disfigured, cracked or peeling materials. Of those, 28 buildings had problems only with the window frames, while 18 buildings had one or more other problems.
The next most common problems, with 16 occurrences each, were weeds greater than 18 inches high and exterior grounds with trash or debris.
Lewis said a commercial maintenance code is imperative. Requiring downtown buildings to meet minimum standards is not too much to ask, and city officials wouldn’t be talking about the issue if it weren’t a problem, he added.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or