In the past few months, regular attendees of Jackson City Council have become accustomed to the city clerk rattling off long series of numbers.
The numerals are actually case numbers assigned to properties that the city has declared nuisances, ready for demolition or clean up. Since August, more than 200 lots have been declared menaces to public health, safety and welfare.
The rapid uptick represents a departure from years of gridlock homeowners have complained about when it comes to cleaning up problem properties. It used to be that the process to clean them would be caught up in a nearly endless cycle of snail-mail letters, empty threats from the city, and legal tangles that can take months and even years to resolve.
Mayor Tony Yarber credits a change he made when he came into office in April to move housing code enforcement to the Jackson Police Department.
"We've done that to give code more teeth so that when they go out in communities, they have leverage of law enforcement authority," Yarber explained recently.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors issued a report in 2008 that called vacant and abandoned residential and commercial properties costly problems that the mortgage foreclosure crisis exacerbated.
"These properties are a drain on city budgets," the report said. "They detract from the quality of life, as well as the economic opportunities, of those living around them. They are an impediment to individual neighborhood redevelopment and, ultimately, to achievement of city-wide economic development goals."
The report cites Meridian as one 27 cities using best practices to deal with blight properties through its Housing Condemnation Project, a partnership with the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors and the Mississippi Attorney General's Office.
In that program, county crews demolish vacant, dilapidated houses, the majority of which are in low-income neighborhoods. The city is responsible for abating asbestos. The initiative is coupled with various housing programs that give a leg up to low-income and first-time homebuyers, which incentives keeping the properties cleaned up.
In Jackson, typically, when a complaint is made on a property, the city sends someone to assess whether the property is in violation of city codes. If it is, the city issues a warning to the property owner, who has 90 days to respond, but that can be done with a simple letter and one-time compliance.
If, for example, the violation is due to an unkempt lawn, the owner can have the grass cut once. If he or she then fails to keep up the lawn again, another complaint must be filed, and the 90-day process starts over. In that way, the laws benefit the landowners and make it difficult for the city to wrest abandoned properties from owners who aren't caring for the land.
Private citizens can purchase the property directly from the state, but the City of Jackson has also had some success in the past by asking the state to give the property to the city.
State law prohibits the secretary of state's office from donating the properties directly to nonprofit organizations, but it doesn't prevent them from donating them to a municipality.
The city in recent months moved to a system in which prospective contractors undergo a background check and get added to a pre-approved list from which the clean-up jobs are divided up. Yarber said that, in recent months, the city discovered that some of the contractors being used were not qualified to do work they bid on, such as remove asbestos.
In addition, Yarber said the city streamlined the process by ending the process of bidding out the jobs to local contractors.
"The law doesn't say that; it's just what we do, and what we've found is that it bogs us down," Yarber said.