Originally created 08/30/98

Housing laws hard to enforce



No one lives in the house at 1613 Chestnut St. anymore. Fire destroyed it two years ago after Barbara Mitchell found out her two children, Krystal and Alonzo, contracted lead poisoning while living there.

"Doctors said it was the paint," said Ms. Mitchell, who lived in the house in Augusta's Bethlehem neighborhood with her children, now ages 3 and 9, and her mother, Geneva Scott.

The family offered to repaint the house, but the landlord -- who lives in another state -- wouldn't agree to pay for the work, Ms. Mitchell said.

The 1996 fire began near the front porch and Richmond County Fire Department investigators couldn't determine what started the blaze, according to records. But Ms. Mitchell believes faulty wiring was the culprit. Her family had moved out of the house after it was damaged in an earlier fire.

Under state and local laws, housing must be safe, sanitary and fit for human habitation. The law requires houses to be structurally sound with adequate plumbing, window panes and no exposed wiring, said Rob Sherman, director of Augusta's license and inspections department.

At least 3,000 houses in Augusta don't meet the minimum standards, Mr. Sherman said.

City inspectors are investigating conditions at 14 housesso homes in Augusta's historic Bethlehem neighborhood, where Ms. Mitchell lives. Bethlehem, developed south of downtown in the early 1870s, is one of inner-city Augusta's oldest communities, historians say.

Once haven to aspiring black professionals and white-collar workers, Bethlehem fell victim to middle-class flight to Turpin Hill and south Augusta when veterans returned home from World War II.

Today, Bethlehem is a picture of urban decay.

Many houses in the neighborhood are rented for $225 a month to families who can't afford to live anywhere else.

Several of the houses shouldn't be lived in and are beyond repair, Mr. Sherman said. But even when inspectors learn of a house that doesn't meet minimum living standards, it's often difficult to force property owners -- if they can be found -- to comply with state and local housing statutes, he said.

City officials resolve an estimated 75 percent of Augusta's substandard housing problems, Mr. Sherman said. In the remaining cases, he said, city officials often must seek court action against landlords and that can be an obstacle.

"It's even more difficult if the landlord lives out of town. Recently, we've even had to deal with a woman who lives somewhere in Mexico," he said.

"We have to file the summons with the sheriff's office which serves whatever city that person lives in," Mr. Sherman said. "Serving that warrant isn't always a top priority of that particular sheriff's department."

Just as bad

In the nearby Laney-Walker Boulevard district, city officials are concentrating on condemning vacant houses they consider eyesores in an area where a new health department building is slated for construction.

"There are homes in Bethlehem that people live in that are in just as bad a shape as Laney-Walker," said the Rev. Larry Fryer, who is spearheading Bethlehem community efforts. He also worked to revitalize the Bethlehem Community Center and is rallying residents to take pride in their neighborhood.

Bethlehem is a special case for city officials, Mr. Sherman said, because the area has been designated a national historic site.

"The local historical society doesn't want the houses condemned, though they may need to be," Mr. Sherman said. "The society wants them preserved, which doesn't mean the houses that are inhabited don't have to be in compliance. It just means we have to look at that area a little differently."

Bethlehem houses look bad but the foundations are strong and the houses can be rehabilitated, said Addie S. Powell, a member of Augusta's Historic Preservation Commission.

"The houses are in good condition and do not need to be destroyed. That's been overplayed," Mrs. Powell said. "The answer is preservation and protection of the properties, not destruction."

Houses in the community fell victim to looting when people came in and stole old lumber, tin, copper wiring and bricks for use in other places, Mrs. Powell said.

"The wood used to build the houses is almost petrified. The clapboards have been notched together. Some of the houses don't have a nail in them," she said. "The tin roofs are made of metal and are very heavy. They have withstood the test of time."

Boarded up

Instead of tearing down a substandard home in Bethlehem, city officials may ask the owner to board it up and paint it white, inspectors said. That allows officials to deal with problems without raising preservationists' ire, Mr. Sherman said.

The burned-down rental house where Ms. Mitchell's family used to live -- charred, vacant and in need of new electrical wiring -- is a gathering place for crack addicts and should be torn down, neighbors and the Rev. Fryer said.

The city can condemn a house immediately if it is deemed a health hazard. But someone must make a complaint to the city's license and inspections department before any of that can be done, said Larry Lariscy, a certified housing rehabilitation inspector.

If the plumbing isn't working or electrical work needs to be done, officials tell the owner to bring the structure up to minimum standards, inspectors said.

"If they don't do this, it usually becomes an issue with the landlord saying he's not going to make the repairs because the money he gets for rent doesn't cover the cost of repairs," Mr. Sherman said.

Ms. Mitchell's family now lives in a two-bedroom rental house across the street from where they used to live. Her mother sleeps in a front bedroom while Ms. Mitchell, her boyfriend and the children share the other bedroom.

Their new home has holes in the screened front porch, there's no central air conditioning and the closet in Ms. Scott's bedroom leaks when it rains. The house also needs painting, but "it's not as bad as that one," Ms. Mitchell said, pointing to the family's former residence across Chestnut Street.

Before the family moved across the street, someone shot out a living-room window and put holes in the front of the house. The window hasn't been fixed.

High crime

Ms. Mitchell's family lives in one of Augusta's high-crime areas. Since January, Bethlehem residents have called police nearly 3,000 times, according to Richmond County sheriff's records.

Drug trafficking is such a major problem in Bethlehem that when Mr. Lariscy drives to the neighborhood and sees signs of trouble, he won't stop to inspect the house he intended to see.

"Usually, we find that the condition of a house is the result of lifestyle of a tenant or vandalism before the tenant moves in," Mr. Lariscy said. "But the criminal element in a neighborhood like this is also a factor."

A seven-member crime suppression team called the S-squad sometimes canvasses Bethlehem, sheriff's Chief Deputy Ronald Strength said. Residents should call police when they see illegal activities, Chief Strength said, adding that such calls are confidential.

Mr. Lariscy agreed that citizen involvement is important.

"This is not just a problem for the license and inspections department or the sheriff's department," he said. "It's going to take the whole community to solve this thing."

As Ms. Mitchell stood in front of her home recently, talking with a reporter, a late-model car drove up and a man got out of the passenger side. Another man walked up and the two went to the side of Ms. Mitchell's house.

They exchanged money for what appeared to be small plastic bags.

"They don't care," Ms. Mitchell said, describing the meeting as a drug deal. "That's why (landlords) don't want to fix up around here. You can't even sit on your own porch in peace. And you better not complain or call the police or they (drug dealers) will get you back."