It will take a “massive, massive injection of funds,” perhaps $20 million to $30 million, to thoroughly tackle the problem of blight in Macon-Bibb County, Mayor Robert Reichert said Friday.
His administration has tried to tear down 100 abandoned houses per year -- not always succeeding -- but best estimates are that 4,000 structures sit empty and run-down in Macon-Bibb, he said.
“And I’ve got news for you,” Reichert said at a blight conference in Macon. “They’re coming online faster than I’m tearing them down.”
So if the massive deterioration is to be tackled effectively, it will take much greater and more costly efforts than have been made so far, he said. The city-county government is considering a comprehensive study of local blight. Meanwhile, officials have mentioned the possibility of putting millions for blight clearance into the next special purpose local option sales tax, which could come up for a vote in 2017. Officials also are looking into the idea of bonds even before a future SPLOST vote.
Reichert was Friday’s keynote speaker at a blight conference at Mercer University, which was co-sponsored by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Collaborative Journalism. The Telegraph is a partner in the CCJ, along with Mercer’s journalism program and Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Blight is not always easy to define, Reichert said. Vacant properties aren’t necessarily abandoned, and run-down houses may still be occupied by people who are no longer capable of keeping them up, he said.
“Exactly where do you draw the line?” Reichert said. But merely run-down or empty conditions often progress to true blight, and that has a big impact on neighborhoods, he said.
“It will not be long before a vacant property becomes a vandalized property,” Reichert said. Squatters, drug use, prostitution and theft often follow, depressing surrounding property values, while public officials may have trouble finding the responsible property owners, he said.
“It’s a continuing cycle that goes down and down and down,” Reichert said.
As a result, neighbors stop caring about their own property, he said.
“How do you raise a child in the middle of a blighted neighborhood and expect them to have any sense of respect for other people’s property?” Reichert said.
Even nonresident owners who want to be responsible often find newly fixed or boarded-up property repeatedly vandalized, making it useless for them to repair it again, he said.
Reichert reeled off the difficulties involved in condemning and tearing down even long-abandoned properties: an extensive legal search to identify and notify owners, expensive testing and removal of asbestos or other hazardous substances, and the work of demolition itself. Costs average from $12,000 to $15,000 per house, Macon-Bibb County’s Economic & Community Development Director Wanzina Jackson said. And Reichert said the time required can range from six months to five years.
Current efforts to deal with blight, though not making a dent in the number of decaying houses, aim to motivate neighbors to start work on their own, the mayor said. His “Five by Five” cleanup program, which provides intensive public services to distressed five-block stretches for five weeks, will coordinate this year with planned house demolitions in those areas, he said.
The government is partnering with organizations such as Rebuilding Macon in blighted areas, helping to fix up decaying properties before they get too bad, Reichert said. He lauded Habitat for Humanity’s work in Lynmore Estates as an example of bringing back a run-down neighborhood by building new houses. Just tearing down houses to leave empty, overgrown lots isn’t enough, Reichert said.
“You absolutely have to put something back in its place,” he said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.