Macon making final effort to grapple with empty houses

jgaines@macon.comJuly 6, 2013 

No one disputes that abandoned and deteriorating buildings are a problem in Macon. But the real scope of the problem is hard to tell, and efforts to deal with it hard to measure.

As the city government prepares to merge with Bibb County in six months, Macon officials are putting an unprecedented amount of money into demolition efforts, and work is beginning on a plan the consolidated government could use to get ahead of the game.

For several years the city has put $200,000 to $300,000 annually into tearing down empty buildings, and an amount in that range was proposed in the budget that went into effect July 1. But during budget talks, Macon City Council trimmed funds elsewhere to put more into demolition.

Altogether, there’s $530,500 available for use by the end of 2013, interim Chief Administrative Officer Dale Walker said via email.

“We have set a goal of 100 houses in 75 days,” he said. “Very aggressive, but considering the lackluster year we had in the past fiscal year, I have asked to step it up.”

The long-standing goal of Mayor Robert Reichert’s administration has been to tear down 100 houses a year, but results have consistently fallen short. Recently council members heard that just 23 houses had been torn down between July 2012 and April 2013, using a fraction of the money available. A week later the administration said two dozen more were demolished.

“What was going on at the end of the fiscal year was encouraging, in terms of the amount of work Public Works was doing in taking down houses,” Councilman Tom Ellington said.

Ellington successfully sponsored a resolution in March that asked the Economic & Community Development Department to develop a master plan for “the elimination of blight” citywide.

Though hundreds of buildings sit empty and more than 1,000 housing code violations were reported to Municipal Court in the past year, the city never seems to make much real progress, he said. Ellington attributes part of that to lack of a system for prioritizing blight issues.

“Part of this is simply getting a full scope of the problem in one place,” he said. “We don’t really have a great 30,000-foot view of where we are at the city with regard to blight. We know it’s a big problem, and any one of us could point you to particular neighborhoods or particular houses and say, ‘Yeah, there’s a problem here.’ ”

A federal community survey for 2007-11 found that nearly one-fifth of the 43,175 housing units in Macon were vacant, though that didn’t mean they were permanently abandoned, according to Wanzina Jackson, Economic & Community Development Department’s director. And tax revenues for dealing with such problems fell just when neighborhoods needed the most help, she said in an email to The Telegraph.

“Based on the steady loss of population and the economic decline that the city of Macon has experienced over the last 20 years, the city has had to redirect its focuses in a number of areas,” Jackson said. Thus ECD is looking for various grants and partnerships with other agencies, she said.

Getting a plan

That’s just what a blight plan should include, Ellington said. He hopes it looks beyond tearing down individual buildings to comprehensive neighborhood revitalization planning -- including, perhaps, abandoning some sparsely populated areas. That would mean stopping urban services to newly cleared “green spaces,” as has been done in other shrinking cities. The city could then focus its resources in remaining neighborhoods, Ellington said. And while he doesn’t have specific areas in mind for that treatment, he acknowledges that some longtime residents of nearly vacant areas may not want to leave. That should be respected, he said.

“You don’t want to be forcing people out of a place where they really, truly, deeply want to live,” Ellington said. Frequent communication between officials and affected neighborhoods will be crucial to a plan’s success, he said.

Ellington said getting that plan put together is his top priority for his last six months in office.

“I hope that the new commission and the new mayor will find it to be useful, and I can’t imagine that they won’t,” said Ellington, who is not running for a seat in the new government. “The problem is not going to go away in the next 10 months or nine months.”

While it may take several months to put such a plan together -- longer, even, than the current city government will be in existence -- it’s important to at least make a start, he said.

Jackson said ECD is reviewing several blight plans from other cities and figuring out how much some ideas would cost to put into effect here.

As of July 3, there were 22 more buildings ready to be torn down by Public Works crews and another 84 “in the pipeline,” Jackson said.

But preparing properties for demolition is a long legal process, which often requires expensive asbestos removal work, according to ECD officials. Right now Public Works employees are busy tearing down the former Central Services headquarters on Riverside Drive. To meet the new, even more ambitious demolition plan may require hiring more outside contractors, Walker said.

And with many empty houses, it’s hard to even determine whom the owner is. Many of them are in foreclosure, but that legal process may not have been completed, though residents had been evicted or just “walked away,” ECD officials have told council. Mortgages may have been sold multiple times, and some banks quietly disavow responsibility for properties they’re stuck with.

That needs to change, Walker said.

“At some point there needs to be some responsibility of the homeowner to maintain and take care of their home, rather than just walking away and letting it deteriorate to a state that the community has to take care of it,” he said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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