When Aaron Zaritzky took over as president of the Beall’s Hill neighborhood association, he asked residents to list what they thought were the most important issues facing that part of town.
The neighborhood’s spate of blighted houses topped the list by far.
“That was the most important,” Zaritzky said. “It was clearly the top priority among neighbors. ... We’ve had serious trash dumping issues. ... People keep breaking into (empty houses) and taking the copper. Some of the houses have been torn down to the boards.”
Seeing a street with boarded-up homes puts a stain on the entire neighborhood, he said.
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“People saw (blighted houses) when they are driving down Telfair Street,” he said. “The word got out that the neighbors don’t care about their neighborhood. If someone wanted to do a crime, they could do it in that neighborhood.”
Beall’s Hill is hardly the only Macon neighborhood facing the problems associated with blighted housing. Besides being an eyesore that can hurt the value of surrounding houses, blighted homes also attract crime and present safety issues.
When Robert Reichert became the mayor of Macon, he set a target goal of demolishing 100 blighted homes per year. With 74 demolished in 2010 — including 35 in the past six weeks — city officials are optimistic that they’ll reach that goal by year’s end.
“A hundred might not sound like a lot, but that’s about two a week,” said Andrew Blascovich, Reichert’s spokesman. “With all that goes into it — cleaning up the title, deeming whether (the house) is a threat to the community, the process to remediate — it’s a pretty intensive program.”
“For us and Public Works, it’s a good number to shoot for,” said Jesse Gerwig-Moore, the neighborhood division administrator for the city’s Department of Economic and Community Development. “We’ve gotten close every year. ... We try to keep it on a constant cycle.”
Gerwig-Moore said it’s not just a matter of finding a blighted house and having workers show up and knock the house down.
He’s in charge of getting abatements for the abandoned homes, and then he has to get a company to test the structure for environmental issues, such as asbestos. Once that is cleared out, he chooses a neighborhood in which the Public Works Department can hit several houses in a cycle.
Lately, though, when one blighted house is demolished, another one seems to pop up, thanks in part to the slump in the housing industry.
Though about 200 houses have been demolished from the 350 or so that were on a list when Gerwig-Moore started in 2008, the number of blighted houses continues to increase.
“At any given time, we may have 400 or 500,” he said.
It costs an average of about $20,000 to demolish a home and clear the property, Gerwig-Moore said. Most of the money comes from the city, although there are occasional federal and state neighborhood stabilization grants that the city gets.
The city used to average about 40 demolitions a year before 2008. Environmental laws have become much more stringent, Gerwig-Moore said, making the cost of removing a house more expensive and time consuming.
Macon Police Chief Mike Burns said such blight is the first sign of decay within a neighborhood.
“It has an effect on anyone who moves into that neighborhood,” he said. “Abandoned houses invite gang activity, prostitution, looting. They’re a fire hazard. The homeless are often there. (The houses) have all sorts of dangers. People dump stuff in the yards, which brings out rodents.”
Also, the more blighted houses his officers have to check out, the less they are available to keep an eye out on occupied homes.
Getting rid of the houses helps keep the community safe, Burns said.
“That’s one less place the crooks have left to hide,” he said. “It’s one less place to steal copper. I can send (officers) to keep an eye on real houses with people instead of one that is boarded up. ... A lot of these houses don’t have electricity, which can be dangerous to an officer entering it. He doesn’t know the perils within the house.”
Once the house is cleared away, the land ultimately ends up with the Land Bank Authority. “Our ultimate goal is to have a nice property back in the neighborhood,” Blascovich said. “The Land Bank can hopefully transfer it back quickly to the tax rolls.”
Even if it takes awhile to get a new house on the property, Blascovich said removing the blighted home is really addition by subtraction.
“With the overall economic climate, at least we’re stabilizing the neighborhood where (the blighted house) is not detracting from the houses next to it.”
Zaritzky said his neighborhood is making slow and steady progress as the blighted houses are cleared out.
“We still have some health issues, but it’s not nearly as bad,” he said. “This has been the most progress since I’ve moved here four and a half years ago.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.