City officials say the number of abandoned and otherwise uninhabitable homes is a lasting issue. Although the city tears down abandoned properties every year, it appears to be a losing battle.
Rob Sherman, the director of the city’s license and inspection division, said he has only $100,000 allocated for demolishing abandoned buildings each year. So far this year the city has torn down 13 buildings, leaving about $25,000 left for the rest of the year – enough to demolish four or five more.
At that rate, it would take about 15 years to tear down the properties currently on a list that continues to grow each year.
Pam Costabile, the city’s code enforcement manager, has a list of more than 300 properties that the city has either determined to be abandoned or is in the process of seizing for demolition.
“Those are just the ones we know about,” Costabile said.
Costabile and her code enforcement officers usually get involved with properties after neighbors or police complain about neglect or safety hazards.
“The house has to be open and vacant,” she said. “We have some where the roof has collapsed in, and no doors or windows. The only thing you can do is tear it down.”
Often officers can’t find someone to take care of an empty property for a number of reasons, she said. In many cases the owner died and left no will or has no heirs. Sometimes properties were owned by businesses that went bankrupt or dissolved and the owners are nowhere to be found.
“Sometimes people just move away and don’t come back,” she said.
A one-story house on Dugas Street with red siding and white trim no longer has doors or windows. The interior is a wreck of crumbling wood and plaster, broken brick, beer bottles. The building has become a dumping ground for old tires and an overnight haven for the homeless. Costabile points out two gaping holes in the floors of two rooms.
“They’ve torn out the chimneys,” she said. “People take the old bricks and sell them.”
Eventually, the house will go on the list of homes to be demolished, but that will take awhile. It is a lengthy process that requires a judge’s order, Costabile said.
Donna Murray, the city’s deputy chief tax appraiser, said Augusta now has the most empty buildings she has ever seen.
“It is a big, big problem,” said Murray, who has worked for the city for more than 30 years and grew up in the Laney-Walker district. In her youth, the neighborhoods south of Walton Way were vibrant and full of activity and commerce.
“Back then Gwinnett Street was popping,” she said, referring to what is now Laney-Walker Boulevard. “Some evenings, you could hardly walk for all the people.”
Today the area is plagued with decrepit and abandoned homes. Almost two-thirds of the properties on the city’s list of abandoned properties lie in the 30901 ZIP code.
Murray said abandoned buildings are a burden on the economy and the tax base. A property with a collapsing building is basically worthless, generating little to no tax revenue and depressing the values of homes around it.
“Down in this area there are a lot of elderly people who can’t afford to fix them up,” said Elaine Waters, a code enforcement officer who works in the Laney-Walker area. Waters said the city tries to work with owners as long as there appears to be some effort to make improvements. Sometimes, however, the city is forced to move forward with demolition, just to resolve the problems. Owners who can’t reimburse the city will eventually have their properties sold on the courthouse steps.
“Some of these houses are about to fall down. They’re dangerous,” Waters said. “We have to think about public safety.”
Trying to fix it
Caspar Rabb, a teacher at A.R. Johnson high school, has lived on D’Antignac Street for the past 10 years in a home renovated by Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp., a non-profit agency working to redevelop the Laney-Walker area.
He loves his home, but not the house next door. The empty duplex is an eyesore, surrounded by knee-high weeds and covered in vines. It is also owned by ANIC.
“I was told it was going to be torn down, but that hasn’t happened,” Rabb said.
ANIC President Robert Cooks said his agency can’t afford to tear down homes unless there is a plan to follow-up behind it.
“We had a program where we were doing demolitions as we acquired properties,” said Cooks, referring to ANIC’s early strategy.
That strategy evolved over the years to the point where the organization tries to acquire entire blocks before tearing down and rebuilding. Cooks said there are some streets where ANIC controls several properties, but not all, which makes it more difficult to redevelop and find customers. Now he looks for clients first and then makes an evaluation about whether a property should be demolished or renovated.
“If the cost of the renovation is more than 50 percent of the current fair market value, then you need to demo,” he said.
Cooks said the perception of crime is one thing holding back redevelopment in the Laney-Walker area.
Rabb said he too is concerned about crime. If it isn’t fixed or torn down, the home next door can become like the one on Dugas, attracting vagrants and criminals.
“I have heard glass breaking at night over there,” he said. He can see other abandoned buildings from his front porch. He said until recently there was another empty building just across the street where a woman was found dead in 2010.
Vacant properties are a safe haven for criminals and vagrants, said Richmond County sheriff’s Capt. Scott Gay.
“It is very problematic for us,” Gay said. “Vacant houses are a place for people with questionable character to hang out and do their dirty business.”
Abandoned houses become places where drug users and prostitutes frequent, he said. In winter months, they become fire hazards when homeless people begin building fires in them to keep warm.
“I would venture to say there are hundreds of houses that are ready to be demolished but there are not the funds to do it,” Gay said.
Tom Blanchard, president of The Greater Augusta Association of Realtors and executive vice president with Blanchard and Calhoun, said the number of abandoned homes depresses the real estate market in certain areas.
“Obviously you don’t want to see any structures abandoned or not maintained,” Blanchard said.
If you take a longer view, however, the problem is part of a cycle of growth and renewal, he said.
Blanchard said as the city continues to demolish these homes, eventually private investors will see opportunities for redevelopment.
“You have to get to a tipping point,” he said. “It can be a healthy thing for the real estate market to see those properties converted to some use.”