Plan would revamp blighted inner city

Now it's Betty Beard who's looking for a sixth vote.

On Tuesday, the Augusta Commission will consider her proposal to raise $7 million through bonds, bank loans or both to crank up revitalization in Laney-Walker and Bethlehem, neighborhoods she likened during Monday's Finance committee meeting to a Third World country.

Getting approval will be a long shot, considering that the five white commissioners contend the inner-city projects can't go forward without a plan to fund the downtown trade, exhibit and event center.

She'll also have to explain why, absent the 2007 deal to fund the TEE center and neighborhood redevelopment through a $1-a-night hotel fee, the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods deserve special treatment.

Augusta License and Inspection Department officials say that from a code enforcement standpoint, Bethlehem represents the worst of the worst, with streets full of vacant, crumbling eyesores that become drug dens and crash pads after dark.

Whereas other distressed neighborhoods such as Turpin Hill, Harrisburg and Sand Hills have similar troubles, those places still have fair numbers of homeowners keeping up properties and organized efforts to turn things around, Code Enforcement Manager Pam Costabile said.

Bethlehem, however, has far less support, with many sections all but abandoned.

A 2008 windshield survey commissioned by the city's Housing and Community Development Department found more than 70 percent of the neighborhood's 873 buildings in poor, deteriorated or dilapidated condition. In the past decade, Bethlehem and Turpin Hill have had the most city-instigated demolitions, with 102 each. The city has put more money into Bethlehem's demolitions than any other neighborhood, spending nearly $400,000 since 1998.

On Wednesday, Ms. Costabile and License and Inspection Director Rob Sherman walked through an abandoned brick house on Bethlehem's Forest Street, which they're trying to get demolished. The house's windows were stripped out, and its inside looked like a big rat's nest. The floor was totally covered by ceiling and sheetrock chunks, strewn clothing, phone books and ripped-up furniture. Just inside the front door, feces was smeared on a wall near a broken vase being used as a toilet.

"It's a place to get out of the weather," Mr. Sherman said. "It's better than living on the street."

"It's a place to do drugs," Ms. Costabile said.

MS. BEARD grew up in Bethlehem during better times, when her family never locked its doors, before the community fell to drugs and decay. Last week, news reports about tenants living in her childhood home on Boyd Lane accused her of being a "slumlord," but a tour of the area revealed her house to be one of hundreds like it.

"I don't think you'll find anything worse," Ms. Beard said of the neighborhood. "I mean, it's terrible. It doesn't get any worse than that."

But for that reason Commissioner Don Grantham, who has been at odds with Ms. Beard on the TEE center issue, questions whether the money shouldn't be spread around.

Laney-Walker already has the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp. making strides toward revitalization. While $7 million could only make a dent in Bethlehem, Mr. Grantham said, it might bring about a near-resurgence in Harrisburg, East Augusta or parts of south Augusta.

Mr. Grantham conceded that he went along earlier because he needed a sixth vote from Ms. Beard to get the TEE center's site and operating agreement approved. At first, he said, the plan was to fund inner-city revitalization in general, but Ms. Beard later specified Laney-Walker and Bethlehem.

"I didn't mind seeing it done over a period of time, but it didn't need an immediate thrust, because there are other parts of Augusta that also need attention," he said. "Do we just pay attention to one area and one area only? I don't think so."

Asked why she picked those neighborhoods, Ms. Beard didn't parse words.

"Because I lived in the area. I didn't live in Turpin Hill," she said. "I know the area. I was in and out of the area all the time. All my life, I have thought something should be done."

She has strategic reasons, too. Laney-Walker, which is mostly in her district, connects to the downtown business district to the north, then to the south gives way to Bethlehem past Wrightsboro Road. Turpin Hill, the next neighborhood to the south, is as bad as Bethlehem in terms of eyesores, and Ms. Beard says it should be tackled next.

THE WINDSHIELD survey by Asset Property Disposition showed properties in Laney-Walker to be in better shape than in Bethlehem. Sixty percent of the 1,284 buildings surveyed there were in good to fair condition, according to the report.

Chester Wheeler, the director of the city's Housing and Community Development Department, said ANIC has played a big role in revitalizing property in the area. The nonprofit development group was created in 1999 to use $30 million in state funding to revitalize the neighborhoods between Seventh and 12th streets, bordered by Laney-Walker Boulevard and Walton Way.

In 2000 and 2001, through state funds disbursements credited to former state Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, the group received two of what was to be three $10 million installments to rehabilitate 143 homes and build nearly 300 housing units. The last $10 million was never allocated.

"They (ANIC) played a major part in it," Mr. Wheeler said. "It's evident that the majority of the redevelopment in the Laney-Walker area was attributable to the efforts of ANIC and that is predominantly why the number of improved housing is much greater in Laney-Walker than it is in Bethlehem."

He said other areas -- such as Turpin Hill and Sand Hills, which abuts Summerville -- are also in dire need of revitalization, but he couldn't provide a number of the dilapidated properties in those areas because surveys haven't been done.

City Administrator Fred Russell said that, if approved, the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem revitalization funds would be used to buy up swaths of property, make infrastructure improvements and provide low-interest loans to developers and financial assistance to home buyers.

"This community is not going to get better until we improve the housing," Ms. Costabile said. "And we're not going to get rid of the drugs until we get rid of the vacant homes."

WITH ITS proliferation of abandoned homes, Bethlehem attracts a class of people who make living there miserable for everyone else, says Ronnie Glover, 55, who rents a blue-painted bungalow on Anderson Avenue near Macuch Steel Products.

He said he agrees with Ms. Beard's Third World statement.

"This reminds me of Jamaica, the slum part of Jamaica," he said of his street, a row of similarly bright-painted houses all owned by the same landlord. "Being frank about it, all the stowaways come up in this neighborhood, all the people that don't have nowhere to go. They're up here all day, all night long, drinking and drugging, dropping trash."

Mr. Glover said he's an Army Special Forces veteran suffering from hepatitis C. He can't work, his wife can't work because she has to take care of him, and they pay $225 per month in rent.

Mr. Sherman said he could probably find a list of violations in the house Mr. Glover rents, but he's not going to try. That would force the owner to make improvements that would drive up rent and possibly drive out Mr. Glover.

"At this point in my life, I don't have nowhere to go," Mr. Glover said. "My landlord, he does the best he can."

Staff Writer Mike Wynn contributed to this article.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

EYE ON EYESORES

For the past two years, the city's License and Inspection Department has been tracking properties for which it requested title searches, the first step in the demolition process. Not all of these houses get razed, though, because sometimes owners step up and make corrections. Code Enforcement Manager Pam Costabile said about 90 percent were slated for demolition, and others were in such serious disrepair that the department was trying to track down the owner.

TITLE SEARCH REQUESTS

Area -- Total

Turpin Hill -- 49

Bethlehem -- 47

Laney-Walker -- 30

Hyde Park -- 29

Harrisburg -- 26

Sand Hills -- 11

East Augusta -- 9

CITY DEMOLITIONS since 1998:

AreaDemolitionsTotal cost
Bethlehem102 $394,151
Turpin Hill102 $376,324.80
Laney-Walker66$267,591.50
Hyde Park28$109,398
East Augusta19$87,730
Sand Hills16$71,513
Harrisburg11$54,410
All other areas112$522,231.50

NOTE: Demolitions usually cost the city between $4,000 and $5,000, according to License and Inspection Director Rob Sherman

Source: Augusta License and Inspection Department

POOREST OF THE POOR

Average household incomes in Laney-Walker and Bethlehem are well below the city average.

Bethlehem -- $19,902

Laney-Walker -- $24,861

Augusta -- $45,446

NOTE: Figures are approximate because they're derived from data based on census blocks, which don't always align with neighborhood boundaries.

Source: Market analysis service DemographicsNow, whose estimates are derived from census trends, births, deaths, building permits, Internal Revenue Service statistics and other indicators.

CONDITION OF HOMES

In 2008, the city's Housing and Community Development Department commissioned windshield surveys to gauge the condition of buildings in the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods. No other neighborhoods were surveyed. Of the 873 buildings surveyed in Bethlehem, a quarter are dilapidated, and more than 70 percent are in poor to dilapidated condition. Of the 1,284 buildings surveyed in Laney-Walker, 60 percent are in good to fair condition, and more than a third are poor to dilapidated. The building were placed into six categories:

1. GOOD

BETHLEHEM

8%

73 homes

LANEY-WALKER

44%

566 homes

EXAMPLE: 1472 Wrightsboro Road

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2. FAIR

BETHLEHEM

21%

183 homes

LANEY-WALKER

16%

202 homes

EXAMPLE: 1236 12th St.

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3. POOR

BETHLEHEM

28%

244 homes

LANEY-WALKER

18%

235 homes

EXAMPLE: 1229 11th St.

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4. DETERIORATED

BETHLEHEM

17%

145 homes

LANEY-WALKER

10%

131 homes

EXAMPLE: 1220 Pine St.

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5. DILAPIDATED

BETHLEHEM

26%

228 homes

LANEY-WALKER

9%

115 homes

EXAMPLE: 1221 Mauge St.

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6. UNDER CONSTRUCTION

BETHLEHEM

0%

0 homes

LANEY-WALKER

3%

35 homes