Harrisburg group tries to fight crime by fixing houses

Residents are on lookout for code violations

A local group is taking a unique approach to crime in Harrisburg community.

CSRA Cares – Harris­burg residents trying to combat drugs, violence and other problems in its neighborhood – is attacking the problems through the Richmond County License and Inspection Department instead of traditional law enforcement.

“We work closely with them to try and get these properties cleaned up,” Har­ris­burg activist Lori Davis said.

The small group of activists – consisting mainly of Davis, Butch Palmer, Woody Merry and Phil Williams – patrols the neighborhood periodically to keep an eye on problem areas. Davis said the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t patrol the neighborhood as much as she would like.

Williams said he takes his truck out with a dashboard camera and checks on areas he knows are a problem.

One night, Williams and Palmer noticed what looked like a drug deal and approached the lookout. The lookout yelled to people in the house, which resulted in shaken nerves but also made Williams more determined to continue his efforts.

“I don’t know if our presence really works,” he said. “But I think it keeps them on their toes. They don’t like to be on camera.”

Because there are so few residents to do patrol, Davis said, the group also takes note of structure code violations.

“We have had lots of success with the License and Inspection Department,” she said.

Harrisburg has many vacant and dilapidated structures. Renters are the biggest problem, Davis said. Residents who own their homes tend to keep them up, but only 15 to 20 percent of the homes in Harrisburg are occupied by their owners, according to Keith Petty, of the License and Inspection Department.

The rental properties are rundown and often missing windows or even parts of ceilings or floors. When a rental property is not up to code, a process starts with License and Inspection to get the structure fixed.

Petty, who has worked with Harris­burg for about four years, said there are many reasons Harrisburg has become rundown, including the volatile housing market.

“Right now, some of these structures are more expensive to fix than the landlords are getting in rent,” he said. “The goal is to have most of the structures owner-occupied.”

Petty said the situation in Harris­burg can be fixed so long as residents start caring about their properties.

“If you put five to 10 grand into a property, you are going to be pickier about who goes in there,” he said. “Right now, it’s just about giving people a roof over their head.”

Petty thinks the neighborhood needs more than money to succeed. He said success would require everyone to help fix up the neighborhood.

If the houses and yards are clean, the criminal element tends to get nervous and clear out, he said.

“It’s also a coordination issue. If you could want to get the bad elements out of there, everyone has to cooperate,” he said. “But for now, it’s one house at a time.”

A large part of success in areas such as Harrisburg hinges on cooperation between residents and the government, Perry said. A block captain or community watch are also good ways for neighborhoods to take responsibility, he said.

Wilson and Petty recently went through an owner-occupied property that was missing all its windows, among other problems.

Wilson said the owner most likely did not have the money to bring the home up to code, so he and a group of residents and landlords are planning to fix it.

“We want to help where we can,” he said. “We all live here.”

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