Originally created 07/30/00

Decaying houses beset neighborhook



Like crumbling tombstones in a neglected graveyard, a row of condemned houses haunts the end of Eighth Street closest to Laney-Walker Boulevard.

It is not the worst of Augusta's inner-city neighborhoods, but this narrow half-mile stretch of asphalt is far from the best.

There are 10 abandoned buildings here. Ten vacant lots sprout thigh-high weeds. And there are 15 homes in varying condition.

Some houses are well kept. The yards are clean. The porches are decorated with flowers. There are plants and lawn chairs that make the yards inviting.

They are the exception.

The norm includes places such as 1006-1008 Eighth St. At best, it is a tired, one-story apartment house. In reality, it is a shack. People pay money to live here.

True, this particular structure, home to 75-year-old Marie Edwards, has plumbing and electricity. But the tin roof is rusted and full of holes, the floorboards seem rickety, the windowsills and door frames are more rot than wood, more rust than hinge.

The next-door neighbor is a 69-year-old man named John Leach, who said he will not be staying long. He is making plans to go live with his sister: "The roof leaks. It rains in my house. Rains on the porch, too. I ain't staying here."

He pays $200 a month for his three leaky rooms.

Across the street are two abandoned buildings where children like to hang out and set mattresses - or anything else they can find - on fire.

Mrs. Edwards said she had to call the sheriff recently to get children out of that "snake-infested fire hazard," as she calls it.

"The city should tear it down. If it ever catches fire, every house around here will go with it. All those houses," she said, motioning to the row of equally depressed homes lining the other side of Eighth Street.

The "snake-infested fire hazard" is filled with beer bottles, shreds of lottery tickets, candy bar wrappers, broken glass, old boards, bricks, nails, and, like all 98 abandoned buildings in this corner of the city, the stench of urine, feces and drugs.

"Sometimes when the wind blows, you can smell that stuff," said 63-year-old Tomasine Mills. The windows of her house, a house that once belonged to her grandmother, are an arm's reach away from one of these deserted buildings. "All the neighbors wish they would tear down that house: The people that come around, they been drinking, they go up in there and smoke and drink and do drugs."

ON MOST DAYS, Mrs. Mills sits on her front porch and watches the world go by. Most nights, she stays inside and keeps her doors locked tight, and even though her house has never been robbed or burglarized, her 12-year-old grandson has recurring nightmares of men - the drunks and the drug addicts next door - reaching through the windows and grabbing him.

"It's terrible," Mrs. Mills said.

It is places like this tiny section of Eighth Street that the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp. has vowed to rebuild. Judging by the numbers, the group has a lot of work to do.

Of the 752 lots found within the Laney-Walker neighborhood, 227 - roughly 30 percent - are vacant.

Then there are the 98 abandoned or unoccupied houses in the area between Laney-Walker Boulevard and Walton Way and Seventh to 12th streets.

A recent survey identified 285 of the 421 residential buildings as substandard, deteriorated or dilapidated by current housing standards.

That's 69 percent.

"It's bad," said Marion Williams, a city commissioner for the district. "People sit here and think everybody goes home to nice houses and everybody's got a front yard. There are some people out there who can't do better because of the neighborhood around them. There are houses people have walked away from and homeless people are staying in them. The good people that are living there .ƒ.ƒ. Something needs to be done. We ought to be able to find these people and have some sort of policy that they got to be responsible for their actions."

CITY ADMINISTRATOR Randy Oliver, City Attorney Jim Wall and Housing and Neighborhood Development Director Keven Mack are working on an ordinance proposal designed to prevent the neighborhood from further deterioration.

If adopted, the ordinance would require all landlords to be licensed. As part of the licensing, rental properties would be subject to annual inspections. Those apartments or homes that do not meet a minimum set of quality of life, safety and housing standards would not be eligible to be rented.

Obviously, city officials say, there would have to be a mechanism for funding this program. Likewise, there are many unresolved questions relating to the issue. The most important one: Where would displaced renters live while their apartments were being renovated?

As for abandoned or condemned buildings, Mr. Mack has suggested placing limits on the amount of time an abandoned house can remain boarded up.

After one year, Mr. Mack said, the owner of the house would have three choices: fix up the property, sell the property or tear it down.

Part of the problem with abandoned buildings is that it is very difficult to track down the owner. Building inspectors and code enforcement officers resort to tax records to trace a property back to the owner.

The search often ends in a dead end: The owner is deceased and there are no living relatives or the property was bequeathed to someone living in Florida or Tennessee or somewhere else. Most of the people they track down have no interest in the property and do not put up any legal challenge when the city attempts to seize it.

Once the city seizes abandoned property, it files the necessary paperwork for demolition and the neighborhood gains one more vacant lot.

OF COURSE, THE vacant lots quickly become overgrown and unsightly, and the city has another problem on its hands. Who wants to buy an overgrown vacant lot in a rundown section of town?

"No one," said Will Torres, a code enforcement officer who regularly patrols the Laney-Walker neighborhood.

The city attorney is working with members of the legislative delegation to draft some sort of bill that would allow municipalities to foreclose on abandoned buildings, confiscate the title or deed and get the property into the hands of people who can and want to take care of the properties.

"That part of town is so rundown with drug addicts, crime, illicit activities, it's not going to happen overnight," Mr. Torres said. "That's the hard part of it. I think if they are going to be successful, they have to get rid of the criminal element. People are scared to go out of their house at night. I go through there and I see a lot of overgrown, vacant lots. I meet a lot of people, a lot of times, they'll talk to you in confidence about how they feel. People are scared.

"If people are living in an area that makes them feel like animals, they're going to act like animals. It's sad."

THE RESIDENTS SAY they are scared of the threat of crime but they are also scared of the repercussions they face from angry landlords if they complain to the city or someone else.

They say they fear that the landlord will raise the rent and price them out of their home. Mrs. Edwards has lived in her shack of an apartment for 27 years.

"I'm not going anywhere. I've been here too long," she said. "Where would I go? It's not that bad here."

Her landlord, Linda Green, did not return numerous phone calls last week seeking comment on the issue.

A few overgrown lots away from 1006-1008, Rick Clark, a carpenter and general repairman for Barton Investments, is applying a fresh coat of blue paint to the side of 1028 Eighth St.

In the past few weeks, Mr. Clark replaced wallboard on the walls, fixed the doors and did some other work to spruce up the house. The tenants recently moved out, and Mr. Clark said his boss wants the place like new before a new tenant moves in.

"When I get this place fixed up, they can get about $190 a month for this place," Mr. Clark said. "Maybe a little more."

One of the biggest frustrations for city inspectors and politicians alike is that there are not enough property managers like Barton Investments, companies that take care of their rental properties, and there are too many like Pheotis Upshaw, who do not keep all their rental units up to code.

Mr. Upshaw owns a half-dozen properties in the Laney-Walker area. Some of them are in good shape, and some need work. Two of the properties he owns, 1025 Summer St. and 909 Ninth St. are in very bad shape. The Summer Street house is now boarded up; it appears the only recourse is to tear it down.

Mr. Upshaw, who has been renting properties for more than 35 years, said he can't make the repairs because he simply doesn't have enough money to pay for them.

"If you get a good tenant, it's pretty easy to keep up with the normal wear and tear," he said. "When you get a bad tenant, they damage things, destroy things and they know it's the owner's responsibility to fix it, so they don't fix it."

Those bad tenants then move out and leave the owner all the problems, he said.

"If you don't board up the windows right away, within two to three weeks, vagrants are in there, tearing up the rugs, destroying the bathtubs and the toilets," Mr. Upshaw said. "I don't have the money to make those kind of repairs. It's too expensive."

MOST LANDLORDS SAY they are getting $150 or $200 a month in rent; if they spend $5,000 or $10,000 on repairs, they might get $170 or $220 a month on rent. There's no market. It's just not worth it, they say.

Mr. Williams doesn't believe that argument.

"I think too many landlords don't live in the area; they close their eyes to it," Mr. Williams said. "They don't have to see it. They try to think it doesn't exist. People are really tired of it. We've got too many landlords renting property who really don't care: they're getting the rent from the property and not restoring it or fixing what needs to be fixed.

"We've got to clean up the inner city, not just in certain areas; we need to do more than just plant trees or flowers. We've got houses that have been boarded up for years, two or three cars sitting in the back yards. That's just not right. It brings the property values down and brings in rodents.

"It's got a very negative effect on the community. We talk about revitalization; I don't care how much money we spend, who's going to move in? A lot of neighborhoods, people are living in cars, our young children see people sleeping in cars and think that's normal."

HOPING TO CHANGE those perceptions and rebuild a historic part of the city, the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp. - a dream team of bankers, business owners and politicians - already has designated about $5 million to be used in the area between Seventh and 12th streets, Laney-Walker Boulevard and Walton Way.

The focus, according to the group's initial economic development plan, would be on new housing, rehabilitated housing and strict code enforcement.

The hope is that by doing these things, the tax digest will grow, new jobs will be created and the quality of life will be improved.

Robert Cooks, the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp.'s executive director, knows the project is difficult, but he's willing to give it a try.

"You need cooperation from law enforcement, code enforcement, planning and zoning, the general community," he said. "Is there the political will to make it change?

"By political will, I mean, is the city willing to use whatever means necessary - eminent domain - to make this work?

"You can't develop the inner city with a slow process. You need to quicken it up, and that's why the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp. was created."

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.

Last year, the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp. was created with the purpose of addressing the revitalization of Augusta's inner-city neighborhoods and developing and implementing economic development projects throughout the city.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit group announced it would start its rebuilding process with the Laney-Walker neighborhood. Specifically, this board of bankers and business professionals chose to revive the area between Seventh and 12th streets and between Laney-Walker Boulevard and Walton Way. The group plans to spend more than $5 million of a three-year, $30 million state grant on the community.

During the coming months, The Augusta Chronicle will study the history of this once-thriving hamlet, introduce its residents, explain the plans to rebuild it and identify the hurdles that must be overcome if this rebirth is to be successful.