Started at the The Chronicle as a night police reporter in 2000, after moving to Augusta from Lynchburg, Va. The following year, joined the Special Projects team. In 2003, covered the invasion of Iraq as an embedded reporter with the Augusta-based 319th Transportation Company. Served as the Society of Professional Journalists' Georgia Sunshine Chair from 2007 to 2009. After Sylvia Cooper retired in 2008, spent a little over a year as the newspaper's city government reporter, writing The City Core both as a weekend print column and as an online blog. This year, joined the newly-formed Public Service team.
Posted August 14, 2009 11:46 pm - Updated August 15, 2009 11:53 am

There is no middle ground in Harrisburg

I was only trying to do my job.

I only wanted to give both sides a chance to comment in my ongoing coverage of the Harrisburg activists vs. Harrisburg landlords dispute, which involves the first group picketing or threatening to picket the owners of what they say are the worst “nuisance” rental properties in the neighborhood, and the second group wishing they’d just go away.

But last week I unwittingly became a go-between when some landlords tried to broker a peace accord, a dismal failure. It seems I’m no Jimmy Carter, and it seems these two groups’ interests and philosophies are so divergent that I doubt even President Malaise himself could get them on the same page.

It started on Monday when I got a call from Cliff Channell, the owner of Channell Realty. He was flabbergasted that 10 Harrisburg residents spent Saturday morning protesting outside his office in Wheeler Executive Center, unfurling a long banner that read, “Hold Rachel Rabitsch accountable 4 1841 Watkins St.” while Butch Palmer yelled at passing cars.

Mr. Channell said Mrs. Rabitsch, a leasing supervisor, has worked for him for more than a decade, and he supports her 100 percent. It’s hard for a landlord to evict tenants who pay their rent on time – $1,080 per month in the case of the Watkins Street duplex, which has had 41 visits from the sheriff’s office since January 2008 – and haven’t been convicted of any drug crimes themselves, he said.

Mr. Channell proposed a deal. His company manages about 30 properties in Harrisburg. If the “concerned citizens” group has problems with any of them, he’ll boot them when the leases run out and start looking for new tenants while the activists do the same. If a property winds up sitting empty, though, the group would have to pool their money to cover any lost income. He, Mrs. Rabitsch and several other landlords would go along with those terms, Mr. Channell said.

I called protest organizer and Crawford Street homeowner Lori Davis and asked  whether she had any comment. Let’s just say it didn’t go over well.

“Isn’t that lovely?” she said. “So we’re gonna’ come up with $1,080 a month for a dump.”
Mrs. Davis said the offer is “like spitting on us.” She said she wouldn’t help put anyone in 1841 Watkins St., which ought to be razed. She said Mr. Channell has proven that he and other landlords are motivated only by money .

She passed the offer on to the other members of her group, who were equally indignant. “What is he sacrificing? Nothing,” Mrs. Davis said. “We sacrifice our safety every day we live here.”

She had this for a counteroffer: Find a place in Mr. Channell’s neighborhood that rents for $1,080 a month and let the Watkins Street tenants move in there.

But it’s really all a moot point. Mrs. Davis said her group isn’t having trouble with any Channell-managed properties. They want to hear from Mrs. Rabitsch, not her boss, Mrs. Davis said.

I reported all this back to Mr. Channell.

“This tells me how skewed her thinking is,” he said. “It’s an investment for (the Rabitsches), and that’s how they make their living. That’s like the Rabitsches asking her to quit her job.”

And since The Chronicle isn’t paying me to be an envoy/mediator, I think I’ll quit doing that job myself.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or