Originally created 07/13/97

The downward spiral



Neglect helped kill Rosa Lee Barnes, her neighbors say.

Before the 83-year-old grandmother died in a drive-by shooting last week, Turpin Hill residents knew it was just a matter of time before Eighth Avenue would erupt in violence again.

Some residents believe the blight that has taken over many of the houses on the block is also responsible for the criminals who have taken over the neighborhood. They see a cycle of abandonment where blight feeds crime that feeds more blight.

"Gangs are always on the corner up there. That's where it is. Up on this corner here and in two or three houses after you cross Grand Boulevard. About six houses over there are empty," Eighth Avenue resident Willie Law Jr. said two days before the shooting.

The blight problem is creeping into many Augusta communities, resulting in whole neighborhoods of houses worth nothing to taxpayers, little to owners or people who live there and an open invitation to crack dealers and prostitutes.

Ms. Parks, 83, was gunned down early Friday morning, a victim of what police say was a battle over drug turf.

It was the second murder at 1034 Eighth Ave. Just last March, Phillip Beard, 43, was shot to death in a drive-by shooting while standing in front of the same house, said Richmond County Deputy Chief Ronald Strength.

Getting rid of the blight will get rid of the crime, say Eighth Avenue residents who are tired of properties being neglected in their neighborhood.

Tax records paint a picture of a neighborhood in decline over the last 30 years.

Housing values for the 1000 block of Eighth Avenue have dropped more than $100,000 since 1967 when those values are adjusted for inflation.

During that time, many of the avenue's houses have been boarded up and abandoned, lots have become overgrown with weeds and several houses have been torn down.

"I wish I'd known it was coming to this," said Mr. Law. "I'm trying to live it out. If it wasn't for that, I would've been gone myself. I done told my children, I said, If it wasn't for the house and furniture, if I knew someone I could sell it all to I would have been long gone.

"You can't sell anything around here now," he said. "You can't hardly give it away."

In 1967, the Eighth Avenue brick house that Richard Lee lives in was worth about $58,466 in 1997 dollars, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index for housing.

Today, tax records list the house's market value at $26,500. Mr. Lee says the house is still solid, but the neighborhood around him has crumbled.

Vacant houses sit on both sides of his house, and across the street the ruins of a demolished house have sat untouched for months.

"Somebody came and tore it down and left it like that," Mr. Lee said. "Every time I come out the door and have to look at that it makes me sick."

The deterioration of the neighborhood opened the door for criminals to come in, he said.

"Down on that corner it's a bunch of young people be down there all the time," Mr. Lee said, pointing down the street where Ms. Barnes would be gunned down Friday as she put her grandson to bed. "The police have been down there several times. I don't know what they were down there for."

City leaders have been grappling with the city's blight problem for two months. At their June 3 meeting, commissioners approved a plan to place code-violation signs on the property of abandoned houses to embarrass the homeowners into compliance.

But two weeks later, a group of inner-city residents complained that the signs would stigmatize their neighborhoods as slums. The plan has been sent back to a subcommittee for review.

The three-decade slide of property values on Eighth Avenue also occurred in dozens of other neighborhoods in Augusta, city officials said. The result is the loss of millions of dollars in property taxes, said Richmond County tax commissioner Jerry Saul.

That loss of revenue affects all the citizens in the community, said Doug Bachtel, professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia.

"Some people don't realize housing is related to economic development," he said. "It really revolves around housing, and the critical part of economic development. Some people don't realize that. They just don't make that tie."

Part of the problem arises when young homeowners don't move in as existing homeowners age, Dr. Bachtel said.

"Houses are owned by older residents and since women live longer than men, whole neighborhoods eventually become inhabited by `the frail elderly,"' he said.

"Then something can happen to their houses, and they don't have the money to fix up a place. So in the space of a few years, you have a slum."

Then the elderly women die off, and the houses become rental units with absentee landlords and become more and more rundown, he added.

"It's almost like a domino effect," Dr. Bachtel said. "One neighborhood affects another. Then you have mixed-use areas with convenience stores. And the fabric of the neighborhood can change dramatically. And that's basically what defines Augusta."

The inner city - including the Turpin Hill, Bethlehem and Olde Town communities - has lost more than half its population since 1960, according to census records. Some neighborhoods have lost as many as seven out of every 10 residents.

City Administrator Randy Oliver is hoping to earmark about $250,000 to a fund for demolition of deteriorating, abandoned houses, but he doesn't expect the money to go far. It costs about $2,000 per house for demolition, and that price goes up if asbestos is found in the house.

There are already 72 properties on the department of license and inspections' condemnation list, and inspectors believe there are many more houses that will be on the list in the near future.

"We'll probably run out of money before we run out of condemned houses," Mr. Oliver said.

The money for the demolition fund would come from an anticipated repayment of an Urban Development Authority Grant.

But those changes may come too late to please residents such as Mr. Law.

"This street was the best. See what it came to? I thought I'd just try to stick it out for awhile until I get tired of it," he said. "I might just walk out and lock the door and not even look back. That's the way I feel about it."