June 16, 2018 10:02:38 PM
Zack Plair - [email protected]
A local Realtor representing the Columbus Redevelopment Authority sent letters to at least 11 property owners in the Burns Bottom neighborhood saying if they did not agree to sell their lots by Tuesday, the CRA would get a court order to forcibly purchase them for a lower price.
Both CRA board chair John Acker and board attorney Jeff Turnage insist that information is false and neither of them knew about the contents of the letters before The Dispatch provided them with a screenshot of one of the letters on Friday. They both said CRA did not authorize the letters and they consider the Realtor's tactics questionable, if not "threatening."
Andy Kalinowski, a veteran Century 21 Realtor for the Doris Hardy and Associates agency in Columbus, represents CRA in its efforts to obtain properties in Burns Bottom -- a five-block area between Third and Fourth streets that runs north-to-south from Second Avenue to Seventh Avenue North. CRA, whose board the Columbus City Council appoints, wants to acquire properties in the area of mostly vacant lots and low-value housing, demolish existing structures and market the neighborhood for a higher-value housing development.
The Dispatch obtained a screenshot of a letter sent on CRA letterhead to a property owner on Fourth Street North that bore Kalinowski's signature. Kalinowski, after being provided the screenshot, confirmed he sent the letter, dated June 11, "sometime after June 6," along with others like it to property owners of vacant lots or lots with renter-occupied houses in the project area. He said he did not send the letter to any owner-occupied homes there.
In the letter, Kalinowski tells the property owner -- whose name and exact address are redacted in the screenshot -- the CRA is willing to pay $14,000 for the property, which includes the fair market value of $11,500 determined by a CRA-commissioned assessment plus a $2,500 "administrative allowance." It goes on to say June 19 is the "final deadline" to legally transfer the property to CRA or the authority would "permanently withdraw" the $2,500 allowance from the offer, adding that would be "only part of the consequences."
Another "consequence" would be the CRA seeking a court order to obtain the property for the fair market value, according to the letter.
"We've patiently waited more than six weeks for you to realize CRA is serious," the letter says. "We understand it takes time to accept that your days of owning (the property) are fast drawing to a close. Act now or accept the costs of your decision.
"You can hire an attorney. The CRA will not reimburse you for that expense," the letter later adds. "The mayor and city council gave the CRA a job. We are doing that job, whether you like it or not."
Turnage: Letter gives 'made up' deadline
Turnage told The Dispatch Friday that Kalinowski sent the letter without CRA's authorization. While CRA's board has asked Kalinowski to communicate with property owners, Turnage said the Realtor was instructed to first submit the content to Acker for review -- something Kalinowski apparently did not do.
Further, Turnage said there is no deadline as of yet for Burns Bottom property owners to sell to CRA, emphasizing doing so is still "an option."
"That's just a deadline I assume Andy made up in his head," Turnage said. "... I'm disappointed in the letter. We would not threaten property owners this way."
Acker, speaking to The Dispatch, called the letter "unfortunate."
"You can't do that," he said. "I really don't know what (Andy's) thought process was."
Kalinowski, who CRA hired in February 2016 to help acquire the properties, said he felt CRA board members instructed him in a meeting June 6 to take a pointed tone in the letter. He set a June 19 deadline for a response because the CRA board is scheduled to meet again the next day.
He did admit, however, he did not get the letters' contents cleared with Acker or Turnage before sending them.
"If they want me to revise the letters, I will," Kalinowski said.
Acker confirmed CRA is offering fair market value plus the $2,500 administrative allowance for all owners of vacant lots or rental properties in the project area -- which he said is in line with the maximum state law will allow a public entity to pay for private property. For lots with owner-occupied homes, CRA also is offering a relocation allowance along with the other amounts.
Further, Acker said CRA is encouraging property owners who dispute the property's listed fair market value to obtain their own appraisal. CRA will pay based on the highest appraised value, he said.
"We've been battling this two years, and sometimes we're getting property owners who want 10 times what the property is worth. And we can't legally pay that," Acker said. "... The owner occupants will be the toughest. We're compassionate to their situation, too, because those are their homes."
So far, CRA has purchased 28 of the 69 privately owned lots in the project area, according to records Turnage provided to The Dispatch. Lots CRA is still pursuing include 10 owner-occupied homes, 19 vacant lots, six renter-occupied houses, three unoccupied houses and three churches.
Lowndes County owns eight lots in Burns Bottom and Columbus Municipal School District owns one. Turnage said CRA has been in talks with both entities about those lots.
Kalinowski admitted to The Dispatch he sent more, progressively pointed letters to Burns Bottom property owners even after he was reprimanded at Century 21 and instructed to issue those property owners written apologies.
He said he began sending letters in March that specified each property's fair market value and CRA's offer. However, Doris Hardy -- his broker and supervisor at Century 21 -- reprimanded Kalinowski in April for using the company's letterhead without her consent.
Hardy told The Dispatch that, even in April, she felt the letters he sent the property owners were threatening, unprofessional and "showed a lack of common sense," spurring her to demand him send the apology letters.
"I was absolutely ballistic," Hardy said. "There are always 100 ways to communicate, and as a Realtor, you should have honed communication skills. This was totally inappropriate and a benchmark for how it should not be done."
Another condition of Kalinowski's reprimand, Hardy said, was that he not send such letters again.
But he did, admittedly multiple times, with increasing ferocity. He just began using CRA letterhead -- which he obtained from Acker -- to do it.
"I sent the apology letters in April, shortly after (the reprimand) happened," Kalinowski said. "But even in those, I noted the points (in the original letters) remain valid."
CRA has paid out $12,869.60 in commissions to Century 21 Doris Hardy and Associates for 13 property sales Kalinowski has executed in Burns Bottom since June 2017, according to an email from Turnage. Neither Turnage nor Kalinowski provided the commission percentage or a copy of the Realtor's contract upon request.
The city council has approved a special ad valorem tax to fund CRA's property acquisition, site preparation and marketing efforts.
Possibility of eminent domain
Turnage said to even begin the process of eminent domain -- the forcible sale of private property to a public entity for an expressed public need -- CRA would first have to show the city council it had made a good-faith effort to acquire the properties voluntarily.
Since many of the properties could be considered blighted, the council could eventually vote to condemn the properties then pursue a court order to force a fair market value purchase.
Even so, Turnage said that time has not arrived. When and if it does, he asserted the owner-occupied homes would not be part of that equation.
"There is no political will to try to force out or otherwise dispossess an owner-occupant," Turnage said.
Stephen Jones, councilman for Ward 5, where Burns Bottom sits, said he "won't entertain" the idea of supporting eminent domain for even the vacant and rental properties in the project area until CRA has successfully negotiated sales with all owner occupants.
"If you open that can of worms, where does it end?" he said. "And if there's still owner occupants there when we do it, how can we guarantee it won't affect them?"
Another wrinkle in the project is Burns Bottom's listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which now has the Mississippi Department of Archives and History investigating properties in the area for possible State Landmark designation -- which would protect structures from being demolished or altered without state consent.
Turnage said CRA is working with MDAH and is having the neighborhood resurveyed according to National Parks Service historic district guidelines.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.