Originally created 09/14/03

City rebuilds run-down areas



AIKEN - The white wicker patio furniture and children's swing sets on James Town Court in north Aiken are what city leaders want to see.

The 11 houses along the street were built and offered to low- and moderate-income families at affordable prices.

"It's a nice little quiet neighborhood," said Charles Smalls, who lives on the street with his girlfriend, Lasonya Goff, and their two children.

The catch is that three houses on the street sit empty, the yards filled with knee-high weeds.

A lack of qualified home-buyers could trip up the city as it attempts to repeat the James Town Court effort across the north side.

The city council approved a 10-year, $20 million campaign in March to rebuild Aiken's north end, an economically depressed and run-down area of more than 100 blocks north of Richland Avenue. Plans include building 200 houses and fixing up 200 more, then selling most of them at discounted rates.

"We know if we don't sell them, it's not going to be successful," Assistant City Manger Bill Huggins said.

The city council voted Monday night to spend $116,000 on the next phase of revitalization - in the Toole Hill neighborhood, between Edgefield and Abbeville avenues near Morgan Street. Construction is to start this winter.

The money will go toward the purchase of 15 lots. Four of the lots have houses that will be demolished, and one house will be renovated. The rest of the lots are vacant.

In all, Aiken has set aside $600,000 this year to revamp the area. That includes refurbishing houses, building sidewalks, adding landscaping and constructing 40 homes.

The desired result would resemble the 11 houses on James Town Court, where yards are landscaped with shrubbery and sodded grass.

When the James Town Court houses were unveiled in December 2001, buyers for each house had been lined up. Four months later, five of the 11 houses remained empty. As of this week, three of the homes were unoccupied, though two are under contract, City Manager Roger LeDuc said.

Some of the prospective buyers had good credit but now do not, according to the Aiken Housing Authority. The city is completing its north side project with the Housing Authority, an independent group that assists renters and home buyers, and the Second Baptist Church on the north side.

The Toole Hill phase will cost about $3 million.

The Housing Authority helps finance home buyers with low-interest loans, made possible by state and federal grants.

Together, the city and Housing Authority have built about 90 low-income houses. But qualifying low-income applicants to buy homes isn't easy. Many must take classes that teach them how to manage their money.

"If we get the people to the classes (and) they take the classes, we should have a ready pool of candidates," Mr. LeDuc said.

The city also hopes to attract private investment to the north side project.

"We want to be at the point where the only investment we have is the land," Mr. LeDuc said.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803)279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.