A pleasant surprise at the building department


By Jeff Keeling

If Jim Sullivan has his way, exasperated property developers and businesses won’t be the only ones to benefit from his tenure as Johnson City’s chief building official. The elderly widower who’s long been unable to maintain his house; the young brother and sister in substandard living conditions (and possibly worse); the person whose behavioral health struggles lead to an unsafe home – all may be helped by a new look at how the city’s property maintenance team does its work.

I spoke with Sullivan – who has been on the job for a few months – a couple weeks ago, expecting our conversation to revolve around Johnson City’s longstanding reputation, deserved or not, as a difficult place to develop property. We covered that topic thoroughly, but I was pleasantly surprised when the conversation turned to blighted residences.

“We have a lot more blight in Johnson City than I’m seeing in Alexandria,” Sullivan said of the northern Virginia city he worked in for the past couple decades. He mentioned the city’s property maintenance team of Kim Lester, Seth Ambrose and Lorena Bennett, saying the trio is doing what he called “yeoman’s work” to address the issue.

Addressing blight can include eventual demolition of houses that have become unsafe. Sullivan said a number of what he called “non-responsive owners” have walked away from their properties. In those cases, he said, “there are mechanisms in place by the city ordinance to deal with that, and we’re following through on those.”

Owners fitting that description will need to get those homes repaired. Otherwise, the city will demolish them if they’re unsafe, as it was doing with five houses the week we spoke.

In other cases, though, houses eligible for enforcement action are occupied, sometimes by renters, sometimes by owners. Sullivan said the problems stem from a litany of causes, from mental health struggles and difficulties brought on by aging in place to hoarding and animal control issues.

He said the building department in Alexandria is at the center of a task force that addresses these things on a case-by-case basis. Particular attention is given to owner-occupied houses.

“We’re not necessarily trying to be the heavy hand that’s always in there to declare properties unfit, but we’re there to try to bring services to folks so that we can eventually remediate their properties and get them into better living conditions for themselves and for their community,” Sullivan said of his hope to replicate such an effort here.

Who would have imagined the city’s oft-maligned building department could serve as a gateway to helping a long-suffering, often overlooked segment of our population? God can cause his grace and mercy to work in unexpected ways and through unexpected paths.

“Our focus is on building,” Sullivan said. “We’re looking at a dilapidated structure. If it’s owner-occupied and I’ve got an 87-year-old couple in there, I don’t want to put them on the street, but I don’t want them living in filth and dangerous conditions, either, so it’s time to bring in Adult Protective Services, bring in some of the private entities that are out there that can provide services – let’s work together to get this thing cleaned up, and then we can address it holistically. That’s the goal. We’re working on getting there.”

I wish Sullivan and the partners he brings along the best in an important effort. Trying to make Johnson City more business-friendly is important, no doubt, but the constituents concerned about that issue will surely make their voices heard.

It’s inspiring, on the other hand, to think we may have in Sullivan a city official who wants to be part of living out the words of Proverbs 31:8: “Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed.”


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