The house next door: Neighbor trying to get dilapidated Macon home fixed, torn down

jgaines@macon.comFebruary 1, 2014 

Blight_House

The condemned house at 1261 Hartley St., left, sits beside the neatly kept house at right. Hartley Street is off Houston Avenue in south Macon.

WOODY MARSHALL — wmarshall@macon.com Buy Photo

  • How does a building go from unsafe to abated?
  • THE BLIGHT AMONG US

    About this project

    Boarded-up homes. Shuttered buildings. Decaying strip malls. Blight is a daily reality across Macon-Bibb County.

    Over the next few months, the Center for Collaborative Journalism will examine blight in-depth: its causes, its effects on communities and individuals, and ways community leaders and residents might be able to effectively address it. Today’s story is the first of our reports.

By all accounts, William Wood loved his home in south Macon.

He lived in the small, neatly kept house at 1257 Hartley St. for nearly 60 years, Wood’s family said.

The Macon native and U.S. Navy veteran of World War II never wanted to leave, even as the surrounding neighborhood deteriorated.

But Wood’s grandson Stevie Clements said things got worse when the house next door at 1261 Hartley St. fell empty, recalling his grandfather saying it had been about 10 years since anyone lived there. Click here for a timeline of decay at 1261 Hartley Street.

Clements said the “god-awful” house drew apparent drug use.

“You see people coming and going,” he said. “It’s basically like a crack house.”

And it became a nest for vermin. Rats jumped from tree limbs onto Wood’s roof, leaving trails of droppings, Clements said.

In one incident, Wood ventured near the overgrown property to pick up his newspaper, Wood’s daughter Dale Frazer said.

“Before he could get back in, he was covered with fleas,” she said.

Five or six years ago family members started calling the city’s Economic & Community Development Department, which oversaw code enforcement, Frazer said.

“We just kept calling and asking if they were going to do anything about it,” she said. Clements said the family tried again June 4 and was told the house was on the city’s radar, but no action was imminent. He said ECD staff told them the owner — identified as Sean Tucker — had been found in contempt of court in May and would have until Aug. 15, 2013, to clean up the property.

Actually, city records show Tucker was sent an (undeliverable) letter warning for the fourth time that he could be arrested if he didn’t show up for his next court hearing.

Clements called ECD again in September and was told the case was in the hands of a judge — but it “could take years” to get results, he said.

Wood, 88, died this past Christmas Eve at home. Clements is staying at the house to deter any potential burglars.

And the eyesore next door remains.

Woody Marshall/The Telegraph

Symptom of wider problems

Hartley Street is a microcosm of residential blight throughout Macon-Bibb County. Just two blocks long, it branches off Houston Avenue, with a nursing home parking lot at one end and a small apartment complex at the other. In between are 27 quarter-acre residential lots. Four of those lots are vacant. Of the remaining 23, seven of those houses are empty and dilapidated. That’s 40 percent of the properties, and 30 percent of the houses, blighted or unused.

Charlotte Woody, the ECD’s property inspections manager, said there’s no good estimate of how many houses in Macon are sitting empty. The city would only have records of those that have drawn complaints, but that’s plenty, she said.

“Normally we handle between 5,000 and 6,000 cases a year,” Woody said. Those cases were divided among five residential code inspectors, she said.

At a rough guess, through notices of violation and citations, about 35 to 40 percent of reported problems get fixed by property owners, Woody said. Some of the other 60 to 65 percent aren’t fixed because owners can’t afford the needed repairs, she said.

“It’s not always that folks just ignore it,” Woody said.

People frustrated by enduring blight need to know government officials have to follow a detailed legal process in addressing problem properties, said Wanzina Jackson, ECD director. And she admits that can take a long time.

Woody said the long wait for action on 1261 Hartley St. is not unusual.

“This one, to me, was pretty straightforward,” she said. “I’ve got some that have gone a lot longer than this.”

Jason Vorhees/The Telegraph
View from behind 1261 Hartley St. with the former home of Stevie Clements’ late grandfather at 1257 Hartley St. in the background. The abandoned house, one of several along the street, has become an eyesore as Clements’ family tries to sell their house.

When inspectors spot property code violations, owners are sent a letter within 30 days, Woody said. They’re usually given another 30 days to fix the problem, but that can be extended, she said.

If a reinspection finds nothing has been done, inspectors can request that the owner be summoned to court — which can take an additional month or so, while the actual court appearance may take more than another month to schedule, Woody said.

A judge can set a fine or jail time, assign the owner to community service — or issue an order to tear down the house, she said.

“In the court process, we just advise (the judge) of what the status of the property is and make a recommendation,” Woody said.

If violators make any effort to clean up their properties, code enforcers try to work with them instead of issuing further citations, she said. At one point Tucker seemed to be doing that, Woody said.

“He even came to court a couple of times, but then he just stopped,” she said.

Woody Marshall/The Telegraph

Inaction and misdirection

Complaints about 1261 Hartley St., from at least two neighbors other than Wood’s family, predate Tucker’s ownership of the property. An open records request by The Telegraph yielded 154 pages of code-enforcement reports from just the past five years. Click here for a timeline of 1261 Hartley Street history.

Neighbors described the house as run-down and standing open, and in July 2009 an inspector agreed, listing cleanup there as a “major” priority.

A certified letter was sent Aug. 3, 2009, to the owner then listed: Alliance Properties Group. The letter said owners had 90 days to repair or demolish the unsafe building. There’s no record of a response, and reinspections over the next few months found no change.

In November 2009, the house changed hands: Atlantic Southern Bank bought it for $9,000, since the $30,000 mortgage from 2006 was in default. A few months later, a certified letter to the bank resulted in “some progress,” according to an inspector’s report. The grass was cut, and entrances were boarded up. But five months later the property was again unkempt and unattended.

The bank sold it to Tucker in May 2010, according to tax records. It took city inspectors until March 2011 to note the change in ownership.

When a troubled property changes hands, the enforcement process starts all over since new owners can’t be held responsible for previous violations, no matter how far back they reach, Woody said.

“I couldn’t start again in the courtroom,” she said. “I had to start again with a notice of noncompliance.”

The first citation to Tucker was mailed in March 2011, and a court summons followed that August. Tucker himself signed for the August citation, and a month later inspectors noted “some progress.”

But that was apparently the last time city officials heard from him. When Tucker didn’t show up for subsequent court hearings, Macon Municipal Court Judge Robert Faulkner continued the case until February 2012. More continuations followed, as month after month inspectors noted the same problems. Their letters to Tucker went to an address already known to be invalid and kept coming back: “Moved left no address. Unable to forward. Return to sender.”

Those letters kept going to the same address simply because it was the last one the city had for Tucker, Woody said. He had known of the code enforcement problem, since he responded to earlier notices, she said.

Finally, on Dec. 6, 2013 — the same day The Telegraph’s records request was answered — a letter to Tucker announced the city would take bids to have 1261 Hartley St. demolished. That letter was sent to the same Warner Robins apartment as the previous four notices, which had all been returned.

Attempts to reach Tucker at his last known address yielded nothing. Reza Sedghi, listed as his attorney in a Bibb County court case from 2011, didn’t return calls seeking Tucker’s contact information by midday Friday.

Woody Marshall/The Telegraph

Future plans

Under the new consolidated Macon-Bibb County government, residential code enforcement is moving from ECD’s control to the Inspection & Fees Department. In the coming months, the way code enforcement is handled will change, said Tom Buttram, Inspection & Fees director. New software will integrate many public records, preventing notices from going to invalid addresses, he said.

“There have been complaints about that for years,” he said.

And if property owners can’t be found, the condemnation process could be hastened by posting notices with local media, Buttram said.

“If the objective is just to get the guy into court, then advertising doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “But if the objective is to get the property into the hands of someone who will maintain it and take care of it, then that opens a lot of other options.”

Asked how long it likely will take to get 1261 Hartley St. demolished, Woody said there’s no real way to nail that down. Bids haven’t yet been taken, and one more try must be made to notify Tucker, she said.

Once two dozen or more properties are on the demolition list, they all will be tested for asbestos and other dangerous materials, Woody said. That can take a while, not counting any possible legal complications, she said.

Clements said his family intends to sell his grandfather’s house and hopes 1261 Hartley St. is torn down before their for-sale sign goes up. The family is “very concerned” how the property next door could damage their own property’s value, he said.

“My grandfather’s house, it’s a really nice home,” Clements said, “and it’s just not going to be worth anything.”

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489 or email via jgaines@macon.com

 

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