Claudia Bolton fought for two years to get the dilapidated house across the street from hers demolished. There are others in Augusta who will wait much longer.
A city contractor on Wednesday appeared at 1581 Holley St., knocked down what was left of the burnt, collapsed structure and hauled it away.
"It was such an eyesore and it was directly in front of me," Bolton said. "People who drove down the street would slow down and look at it like, 'Oh my God, does anybody live there?' Some people would throw trash on it. It became a dumping ground."
Augusta-Richmond County budgets $100,000 annually to tear down condemned houses. At an average of $5,000 per house, that's about 20 houses each year. Currently, about 100 houses sit on a waiting list.
"It means we will have houses to demolish for years to come," said Rob Sherman, the director of Augusta's License and Inspection Department.
In Sherman's large office, every piece of furniture holds stacks of paper. Awards have been made to demolition contractors for about a dozen properties in 2011, and they'll bid on a list of about 11 more before the money runs out. Files for 57 more properties have also been added to the stacks.
Bolton can recall three or four families over the years who lived at 1581 Holley St. Then Claude White bought it.
"We used to say he was our neighborhood junk man," Bolton said.
White built a brick structure on the back of the property, intending one day to make it a two-story house. He also collected stuff -- old cars, vans, metal and other objects for which there seemed to be no explanation.
"He'd bring home a piece-of-junk car. When it stopped working, he'd pile it up in the back of the yard and move up to another one," Bolton said.
Records from Augusta code enforcement show White was cited several times for trash in his yard. Otherwise, the property was reasonably maintained. White died in 2008..
His daughter inherited the property, but didn't have the money to clean it up or pay the taxes, Bolton said. Rats took over, the grass wasn't cut. Within six months, the house caught on fire.
It's a situation Sherman has seen before.
"Often, abandoned properties are heir properties," he said. "A house is left to the kids when the parent dies and instead of moving in, the kids rent it out."
The children don't put any money back into the house and have to lower the rent as it becomes more dilapidated, Sherman said. When the rent no longer covers the cost to maintain the house, they quit renting and leave it vacant. Vagrants break in, sometimes setting a fire to cook or keep warm, and the house burns.
SHERMAN SAID THERE are two reasons Augusta has so many condemned houses. One is a strong desire for historic restoration years ago that slowed demolitions in neighborhoods such as Bethlehem.
Another reason is private market forces. As people moved from cities to suburbs decades ago, more houses were left vacant. When private owners shirked responsibility for them, the houses became the city's burden.
Market forces will also play a role in whether things get better, Sherman said. Harrisburg, for example, has potential for redevelopment. But the housing market needs to get better soon.
"The longer it takes, the more of these houses we'll have to demolish," he said.
Neighborhood associations in Harrisburg and in Olde Town have fought hard against encroaching blight.
"There are a few in Olde Town, but in the surrounding community there are actually a lot," said Rick Keuroglian, the president of the Olde Town Neighborhood Association. "The problem is many of them have gotten so bad. They should have been sold a long time ago. Now, they're just sitting there."
ABANDONED HOUSES can become havens for drugs and crime, Keuroglian said. Also, the oppressive feel they bring to the neighborhood has a domino effect. People are less likely to care for their own property when a neighbor's property isn't maintained.
Lori Davis, the president of the Harrisburg Neighborhood Association, said from what she can tell, it's nearly impossible to bring down a condemned house.
"The process is easy. Code enforcement tells you they don't have the money or they can't find the owners. End of process," Davis said.
Both Keuroglian and Davis focus on policing properties for code violations. That way, houses don't become so rundown in the first place.
Neighborhood policing can make a huge difference in stemming blight, Sherman said. With limited staff, code inspectors depend on builders and neighbors to tell them where the problems are.
Condemned houses aren't usually caused by lagging code enforcement, though. They're caused by abandonment.
"Once a house becomes vacant, it's often not dilapidated. Not until it becomes vandalized," Sherman said. "That's when the roof starts to leak, because the owner isn't there to maintain it any more. ... If they're in town we can have them cited, but if they're out of town, we can't."