By Amy Wenk

The recession has forced people to vacate homes and fall into foreclosure; budget-busted builders have abandoned half-finished construction sites.

It’s unfortunate for the individuals and for the community.

The spike in economic hardships has left many neglected residences in Sandy Springs, especially south of I-285. Oftentimes the vacant properties become overgrown or infested with varmints.

“It’s a safety risk because a vacant property is an attractive nuisance for crime,” said Marcus Kellum, the chief of the code enforcement department. “It can be a safe haven for the wrong type of person.”

The department has seen code enforcement violations skyrocket. Last year the average number of cases rose from about 150 a month to between 250 and 300 a month.

“People are losing their jobs and not having the funds to take care of the little things,” Kellum said. “But we need to take care of the little things because that is how you preserve the community.”

Because about a quarter of the cases were at vacant properties — in November the number in that category peaked at 100 — the department enacted the Vacant Property Enforcement Program last summer.

Instead of having the city’s four code enforcement officers track vacant properties in their assigned districts, one officer, Walter Osorio, was placed in charge of all abandoned residences.

That helps direct customer complaints and gives residents, city officials, property owners and lending institutions a single source in terms of management, Kellum said.

As coordinator of the program, Osorio identifies and maintains a database of vacant properties in Sandy Springs, coordinates compliance and enforcement efforts, and communicates property status on a monthly basis to city officials.

The program has significantly reduced vacant properties with code violations.

In July, there were 53 known vacant properties in the city, and 29 of them had code violations like overgrown grass or unsecure premises. As of April 30, there are five vacant properties with violations out of 76 tracked.

That improvement has come despite more properties being abandoned each month.

Under the program, 27 owners of vacant properties received citations to appear in Municipal Court, and 14 cases went before the judge. There have been 45 abated violations, and 52 vacant properties are now occupied without violation.

The department has coaxed the demolition of 10 blighted properties since July. The city does not pay for the demolition.

“The property owners understood that the city was serious about ensuring that these properties were maintained,” Kellum said. “The whole purpose of what we do is compliance. Enforcement is only the tool that we use in order to achieve that compliance.”

But it’s not always an easy job to track vacant properties.

“The challenge is finding the owner,” Osorio said. It gets complicated with the increase in foreclosures because the officer needs homeowner cooperation to contact lending institutions to remedy violations.

The ultimate goal, Kellum said, is to have no vacant properties with violations.

“There are now municipalities very interested in copying the program throughout the metro Atlanta area because they have heard of its success,” Kellum said. “When something’s good, I am willing to share it.”