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Latest iteration of controversial 'blight bill' rejected by Wilmington City Council

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media

The Wilmington Mayor’s latest attempt to address the City’s housing stock through legislation has failed. 

The proposed city ordinance known as the “blight bill” has been criticized by housing advocates to landlords over the last few years. It’s been reworked several times. 

The version sponsored by retiring Councilman Bud Freel and presented to Council Thursday would have changed code enforcement for vacant and rental properties from a criminal to civil process, with weekly $250 fines for violations. It also would have increased fees and fines around registration of vacant buildings. It did not include the increased business licensing fee landlords objected to last summer.

“We inserted language that clarified that civil fines apply to rental and vacant properties only and not the homeowner properties, and we removed the increase in the business license fee,” said Freel Thursday.  “I just want to say probably in my 24 years, I don’t think any piece of legislation has been discussed and vetted more than this bill.”

But members of the public, like Amanda Rose, worried it did not contain protections for renters and may lead to gentrification.

“If we push this forward at this point, knowing the COVID pandemic we are in, I ask you, how many occupants will be at an even higher risk of losing their homes in the time between now and a year from now, while we’re waiting for amendments to be made and the bad landlords are finding the very obvious loopholes that exist in this law,” Rose said during public comment Thursday. 

Several members of Council shared these reservations. And some objected to considering important legislation while the 2nd District seat is vacant, after Council President-elect Trippi Congo violated a residency requirement. 

“It has come a long way, and I support this legislation, but I also support a full council body voting on this legislation, because the 2nd District is important,” said 4th District Councilwoman Michelle Harlee. 

Other Council members opposing the plan claimed they needed more time to vet recent changes, or that necessary elements were missing from the ordinance. Some objected to the fact that it exempts properties owned by the City and Wilmington Neighborhood Conservancy Land Bank from certain requirements. 

“Our issues with our buildings and our homes are also part of the issue in the City of Wilmington,” said at-large Councilwoman Rysheema Dixon, who formed a subcommittee to author a competing anti-blight proposal last year. “There’s also unregistered properties that are not going to be hit by this policy as well.”

But Council members including Ciro Adams, Council’s lone Republican, supported it. Adams pointed to the proposed ordinance’s requirement that the City Department of Licenses and Inspections inspect at least 1,500 rental housing properties each year. 

“Inspecting properties each year will protect the renters in this city,” he said. “That’s key.” 

The blight bill failed by a vote of 5 to 7. 

Mayor Mike Purzycki said this summer that failing to get the blight bill passed up to that point was one of the chief disappointments of his first term. He said he thinks it will pass under a largely different council come January. 

So far, an equal number of the ordinance’s supporters and detractors on Council will be replaced. Councilman Vash Turner, who opposed it, ran unsuccessfully for City Treasurer in the September state primary election. At-large Councilman Sam Guy, who spoke at length against the ordinance and its supporters, was pushed out of the eight-way race for the three Democratic at-large seats. Among the blight bill's supporters, Freel is retiring, and Council President Hanifa Shabazz lost her bid for re-election. Councilman Adams faces challengers in next month’s General Election for the minority party at-large seat. 

Shané Darby, who won the race for the vacant 2nd District seat, expressed disapproval of the blight bill during the public comment period Thursday.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.