By ALLAN YARID
In Seneca, South Carolina, the state and federal laws intended to protect property owners are constantly being violated. Two property owners were recently sentenced to jail by the city judge. One of them was an 89-year-old preacher. The other was me. The old preacher was sentenced to 10 days in jail. I was sentenced to 20 and 30 days in jail. Both of us were trying to make repairs to our property, but we didn’t accomplish the task quickly enough to satisfy city officials.
Let me explain a little bit of the background.
In order for contractors and codes inspectors to be licensed by the state, they must pass a test on the International Building Codes (IBC). Under the IBC, if a structure needs repairs, the property must be boarded up for safety reasons, and the codes inspector must not review the property for one year.
Disputes are supposed to be adjudicated by a board of experienced building officials who do not have any ties to the governing body. But this dispute didn’t go before any board; it went before a city judge. The judge had every motivation to rule in favor of the city – all fine revenue goes to city coffers, and once the city seizes a piece of land, it can sell that land for a profit or use it as collateral for loans. On at least six occasions, city officials told me that “if you can’t afford to fix the property, you can give it to the city, and it won’t cost you anything.” The implication was clear.
The truth is this: Seneca officials are forcing people without a lot of financial means to relinquish their property to the city.
Here’s what happened on June 7, 2010. On Monday, the city codes inspector examined my building with two other city officials, two builders and a structural engineer. All of the parties inspected the property together. The structural engineer determined that the building was structurally sound. On Tuesday, I sent the roofer to get a demolition permit to remove the old wood, but the city told the roofer I had to agree to pay for another permit on top of this one. Why the second? To cover the costs in case I wasn’t able to pay for the costs of repairs.
In any case, that same day the codes inspector delivered a letter to me stating that if I didn’t start making repairs to the property, he was going to condemn it and begin the process of having it completely demolished.
I couldn’t afford the charges, so on Wednesday, a notice was placed on the building that it was condemned.
In both instances – my situation and that of the old preacher – the buildings in question needed roof repairs. The codes inspector didn’t just require us to repair our roofs, though. He forced us to agree to remodel the entire buildings. He wanted everything – not just the roofs – to be brought “up to code.”
But the law doesn’t require that. The property in question was grandfathered in, and under state law the property owner doesn’t have to bring the entire building up to code unless work is being done to more than 51 percent of it. Building codes are constantly changing. A building that’s two years old may not be completely up to current code – that doesn’t mean the owner can be fined or forced to undertake new refurbishments just because he wants to, say, repair a wall or install a new sink.
The buildings in this case, furthermore, didn’t even have tenants or any prospect of having tenants.
One contractor agreed to remove all of the roof and put another roof on the building for $24,000. This included removing an area of rotten wood. The codes department would not allow the roofer to do this. He insisted that the contractor remove the old roof entirely before starting work on a new roof. There were other demands, too. By the time he was done, it was going to cost me $90,000 to get a new roof.
During all this time, I was told repeatedly that I could simply give the property to the city. I didn’t want to do that. The property has been in my family since 1926. My father constructed the building in 1948.
Here’s another strange part of the tale. When it comes to demolition of a condemned building, all the city has to do is get a court order. The law doesn’t say anything about jail time for the “delinquent” property owner. The jail time, I believe, was (and is) used as a way of intimidating people and persuading them to cede their property to the city.
The old preacher and I aren’t the only ones who’ve been abused by what many call the Seneca Mafia. I’m aware of at least two others. In both these cases, the owners wanted to put a new roof on their building. They were denied permits and ended up demolishing their buildings.
Not long ago, I overheard a Seneca city official tell an official from the Department of Health and Environmental Control – he was talking about some properties in downtown Seneca – “We’re trying to get rid of these old buildings.”
I can believe it.
Allan Yarid was a member of the Seneca City Council from 1986 to 1988. Yarid’s property was called Sunray Record Shop until it closed in the mid 1990s.