May 11, 2018 11:19:28 AM
Zack Plair - [email protected]
When visiting his father's grave in Sandfield Cemetery one day last year, Jabari Edwards took a good hard look around him at the neighborhood he once called home.
He didn't like what he saw.
Dilapidated housing units pocked the landscape of what once was a thriving South Columbus community, Edwards said, and he could see other evidence of greatly diminished neighborhood pride.
"There were people outside drinking and smoking," Edwards said. "And I just thought to myself, 'This isn't the Sandfield I grew up in.'"
Edwards, a local developer and project manager, is trying to do something to restore his old stomping ground to its former glory -- and maybe even beyond.
Through one of his companies, BH Properties that specializes in blight removal and urban revitalization, Edwards has partnered with the Carl Small Town Center at Mississippi State to craft a master plan for redeveloping Sandfield, from 15th Street North to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Dubbed "Building Back Sandfield," Edwards said he envisions the project including adequate, but affordable, housing, health care and grocery options, as well as neighborhood recreation.
"We're taking a holistic approach looking at overall well-being," Edwards said. "What does it do for crime in the area, for kids going to school and for our employment base?
"For me, this is a labor of love because this is my community," he added. "No matter where I go, Sandfield will always be a part of me."
Edwards also owns J5 GBL, the company that serves as the city's project manager for street work and other development.
The first steps
Smoke rising last Thursday from a former housing development on the corner of Martin Luther King and College Street -- right down the road from Lowndes County Sheriff's Office -- signaled the first tangible steps in making Edwards' Sandfield plans a reality.
Edwards, through BH, purchased 24 rundown duplexes from Dennis Gartman -- which were previously owned by the late Walter Perrigen -- on Jan. 22. Then, Edwards procured permits from the city and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to allow Columbus Fire and Rescue to burn down the structures as part of a training exercise.
Now, dirt work has begun at the site where Edwards plans to build 12 affordable single family homes -- all of which he said will be valued between $100,000 and $120,000.
The development, Edwards said, will include a mix of rent-to-own and homes available through traditional methods, and he is hoping to draw first-time home buyers to the area. Keeping the home values below $120,000, he said, also qualifies them for assistance programs through Mississippi Home Corps, the federal department of Housing and Urban Development and others agencies.
Edwards hopes to have homes move-in ready in nine to 12 months.
The houses themselves, Edwards said, will be similar to those BH completed in 2016 in Northaven Woods. The purpose for the Sandfield project, however, goes beyond simply creating housing options.
"Northaven Woods was just a housing development," he said. "This project will be a lot more sophisticated because it will be part of a greater redevelopment effort in the neighborhood."
Adding value to the city
CFR regularly burns dilapidated and vacant structures for training at the owners' request if the buildings meet certain local and state permitting guidelines, said Fire Chief Martin Andrews.
In just the past 12 months, Andrews said, CFR destroyed derelict structures for 15 property owners as training, which helps CFR keep its national accreditation and also helps the department maintain its state fire protection rating -- which, in turn, directly impacts homeowner insurance rates for Columbus citizens.
Andrews said last week wasn't the first time his department has burned dilapidated properties to make room for a future development because it can save the developer significant demolition and removal costs.
However, as was the case with the Sandfield training burn, the property owner must first pay for asbestos and other hazardous material removal before CFR can come in.
"We're all trying to beautify the community and draw people here," Andrews said. "If we can do it legally and the right way, we try to help with new developments because they add value to the community and we need the training opportunities. So it's a win-win."
Beyond simply adding higher value to quality of life in Sandfield, Mayor Robert Smith said higher-value homes add more value to the city property tax rolls. The city is using a $250,000 grant from the state to remove blighted properties throughout Columbus, Smith said. While those grant funds aren't being used for the Sandfield project, the mayor said Edwards' vision for the neighborhood works hand-in-hand with the city's overall objective.
During the ownership transition for the duplexes, Smith said tenants still lived in some of the 24 units, though, he added, "I'm not sure why." Most were so badly dilapidated, they were hardly livable, he said, and with HUD vouchers for rental assistance -- which he believes most of the tenants have -- they could easily have found better places to live.
All duplex tenants were given at least 90 days to relocate, Smith said.
"These properties were an eyesore in a main thoroughfare of the community," Smith said. "... Everybody needs a nice place to live, and quality of life is important regardless of income. These will be nice homes that will enhance the neighborhood, and they should also reduce crime because when you remove blight, you remove a lot of the places where your criminals hang out.
"We would hope whoever buys these homes (once they are completed in Sandfield) will take pride in their home and their neighborhood."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.