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DALTON, Ga. - With unemployment at 12.9 percent in March and 852 homes foreclosed on in 2007 and 2008, the $500,000 grant Whitfield County and Dalton will receive from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program couldn't be more timely.

"It is designed to help buy up some of the foreclosed properties and try to get people into these houses so it doesn't cause property values to drop within the neighborhoods," Whitfield County planner Kevin Herrit said.

The Dalton-Whitfield Community Development Corp. applied for the grant in January on behalf of Whitfield, Murray, Pickens, Fannin and Gilmer counties. Officials learned last month the region will receive $1.23 million.

County commissioners last week approved an interlocal cooperation agreement establishing the Dalton-Whitfield County Land Bank, which will be able to purchase foreclosed properties. Dalton still must vote on the measure.

The city and county will use the grant to finance the land bank.

The land bank authority will buy vacant and foreclosed properties. It will demolish blighted properties and repair those suitable, then provide lease-purchase contracts to qualified families who lost a home to foreclosure.

"The available funds will allow the county to address some of the substandard housing in our community," said Whitfield Commission Chairman Mike Babb. "The funds are greatly appreciated in these economic times when local revenues and donations are being stretched to the limit."

In the first quarter of 2009, Georgia had the nation's seventh-highest foreclosure rate, according to RealtyTrac's March 2009 U.S. Foreclosure Market Report.

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs saw the problem coming. In the first quarter of 2008, Georgia was one of 10 states with mortgage payment rates categorized as "Seriously Delinquent," the agency reported.

Mr. Herrit said it's important not to let failed mortgages bring down the value of neighboring properties.

Dalton is looking at buying one or two homes in the Morningside neighborhood, and tearing down dilapidated structures on some sites, said Mr. Herrit.

"We can hopefully take that property and sell it back to developers or Habitat for Humanity so we can get more up to date, newer houses built in the area," he added.

Mr. Herrit said Whitfield County is wants to buy three foreclosed homes, repair them and work out a lease-to-purchase deal with families that lost homes to foreclosure, but may be a good risk now. Some of the rent money would go toward a down payment, he said.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington said the Neighborhood Stabilization program is "very important" to Dalton right now.

"It's very timely for any community, but particularly ours," Mr. Pennington said. "People need help with housing."

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