Kim Nerger had 26 addresses on her list when she pulled out of the Terminal Station parking lot soon after 9 a.m.
“Most days I have a whole lot more than this,” she said. “I’ve taken up to 125 pictures a day.”
Those pictures were evidence in nearly 100 code enforcement files, many of which would wind up in Municipal Court. But none of the properties on Nerger’s list on May 12 were due in court that week.
Her day, like most days for Macon-Bibb County code inspectors, was devoted to checking on known problems to see if anything had been done. They can cite owners for any deficiency, from unmowed yards and peeling paint to major neglect, the kind that lets roofs collapse and doors hang open.
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While many places with minor problems also have major ones or are well on their way, the cases singled out for formal action are usually just the worst or the longest-lasting.
In most cases Nerger and other inspectors see every day, previous notices and citations had no visible effect. So they added another note to file after file that would go back before a judge, in usually fruitless attempts to get property owners to show up for a hearing.
The inspectors put thousands of miles a year on their white Ford pickups, getting to know their target areas intimately but with little ability to force resolution of even the most glaring problems.
Code enforcement officers aren’t police. They can issue civil citations, but say they avoid it whenever possible in favor of talking one on one with property owners, hoping that will spur repairs or cleanup.
Sometimes it works, they say. But often anything they do is met with silence, so the file on each house gets thicker and thicker until the court runs out of patience — sometimes years later — and allows the government to move in with lawnmowers and bulldozers.
Many run-down properties are owned by absentee landlords or out-and-out slumlords, Nerger said. Driving through her territory, she can immediately point out which houses are owned by people who are actually too poor or feeble to make repairs and which are owned by people who simply don’t bother.
“There’s nothing you can do when you can’t get them to come to court,” Nerger said. “It gets aggravating, it gets depressing. It makes you feel like you’re not accomplishing anything on a daily basis.”
With thousands of run-down or abandoned properties in the area, Macon-Bibb crews haven’t made much headway, especially since they’ve struggled to reach Mayor Robert Reichert’s goal of 100 demolitions per year. They made it on the last day of this past fiscal year, but for the previous few, tear-downs fell far short.
But code inspectors are still out there, fattening the files, hoping to get something done before demolition is inevitable — or at least building an airtight case if that point is reached.
Nerger said she managed apartments for five years, then spent 15 years as a quality control housing manager at Robins Air Force Base. She began working for Macon code enforcement eight years ago.
“So I’ve been doing it on and off all my life,” she said. “And I love every minute of it.”
She knows many area residents aren’t happy to see her coming, but others are kind, she said. In the past eight years, Nerger said, the neighborhoods she patrols have gotten a little better in her estimation. But there are still overgrown yards, abandoned cars and empty houses on almost every street.
“I’ve got all of south Macon,” she said. “I usually start in the Peach Orchard and work my way over to Village Green.”Nerger praises Habitat for Humanity in particular for its work in the Lynmore Estates area, which many longtime residents call the Peach Orchard.
“I’ve got an open case on just about every one of the houses in here that Habitat has not done,” she said.
Recent policy changes, which accept that Macon-Bibb simply has more houses than it has potential occupants, allow inspectors to close a code complaint if owners securely board up broken windows in empty buildings, Nerger said. That will take care of many nagging problems — and open files — because those windows would just get broken again soon if fixed, she said.
In most cases she sees, though, the file stays open because nothing — or practically nothing — gets done.
That was the case at the first 11 houses she checked May 12, as she cruised down Worsham Avenue, Marion Avenue, San Carlos Drive, Rutherford Avenue, Hansen Street, Houston Avenue, West Granada Terrace, Richmond Street, Mikado Avenue and Buena Vista Avenue, ticking off address after address: peeling paint, trash-strewn yard, high grass, doors standing open.
Finally, her 12th stop, in the 1300 block of Hillridge, showed some improvement, although not much. The yard had been mowed, a little exterior fixing up was evident, and the windows and doors had been secured.
“Looks like they’ve been trying to work on it,” Nerger said.
In Macon-Bibb code enforcement, spurring any action counts as success.
NEW IDEAS, ESTABLISHED ROUTINES
Though the routine of checking, citing and rechecking properties remains the same, the policy and process of code enforcement are in flux.
There are supposed to be five inspectors working within the former city limits of Macon, and two or three for the former unincorporated area, said John Baker, property maintenance inspection supervisor in the Business Development Services Department. But two jobs were vacant this spring, and Nerger took a new job elsewhere at the end of July.
Baker hoped to interview job candidates in short order, but all inspectors could expect to see changes in their work patterns. With Macon-Bibb County consolidation, their territories will be reorganized. Previously only city inspectors had specifically assigned territories.
In April, the department got new software, which should cut down on paperwork and enable notices to be sent automatically. But all existing files have to be copied into the new system, a time-consuming task, Baker said.
“We have lots and lots of catching up to do right now,” he said.
Municipal Court now requires inspectors to do a 15- to 20-year title search before seeking demolition of houses, Baker said. That takes time but has turned up a few people who didn’t know they still had responsibility for empty houses.
Meanwhile, staff are always looking for what other communities are doing to deal with blight, Baker said. There’s no silver bullet — it’s a nagging problem in many cities — but each new technique may bring some improvement.
One possibility is authorizing inspectors to issue tickets, like traffic citations, after an initial warning. That on-the-spot citation would cut a lot of bureaucracy, Baker said.
Come January 2015, with the new software in service and a full staff of inspectors, the Property Maintenance Division might free up enough time to “sweep” whole areas for serious violations at once.
But that may not guarantee uniformity. Inspectors agreed that each of them does the job a little differently.
William Mander, a former Macon policeman who’s been a code inspector for 17 years, waves to passers-by from his truck, but he rarely gets out of the cab. He said he doesn’t want to look intrusive or intimidating.
But he did stop in surprise at a vacant lot in the 1600 block of Second Street, where a man was clearing a long-fallen tree and years of underbrush and litter. Mander got out to chat with Johnny Dudley, who told him the brother of the lot’s Atlanta-dwelling owner had hired him to clean it up. Mander said the lot had been a nagging problem, since the tree fell all the way across the lot and onto a neighboring roof.
Mander drove slowly through the nearby blocks, pointing out a line of houses on Cynthia Avenue, just southwest of downtown, that was ready for demolition. The houses were awaiting a contractor’s inspection for asbestos, he said. For many abandoned houses, though, demolition may be years away. If inspectors can nudge owners to board them up and keep the grass cut, that’s enough, Mander said.
“If you get to that point, you can at least stabilize the neighborhood,” he said.
Mander said he tries not to nitpick, issuing formal citations only for noticeable major problems.
“About every house, whether it’s mine or yours, has got some sort of code violation, inside or out,” he said.
Interior violations don’t get noticed unless there’s a complaint from the occupant. That happens several times a week, usually stemming from landlord-tenant disagreements. Inspectors will take a look but try not to get involved in civil matters beyond issuing a housing code citation, Mander said. Often people will call code enforcement instead of dealing directly with the owner.
It was just such a dispute that got him out of the truck again, in the 500 block of Elm Street. Tenant Laverne Wilson said she’d called about issues she said she couldn’t get her landlord to address.
Mander noted a loose porch post, broken screen door, blocked rear exit and unfinished back room. He told Wilson he’d send the landlord a letter, and he asked her to call him if she heard from the owner.
Mander’s response was enough to get Wilson’s approval of Macon-Bibb code enforcement.
“It’s pretty good so far,” she said.
FRUSTRATION, FILES ENDURE
Inspectors see daily how little influence they have on a blight problem the size of Macon-Bibb’s.
Vernon Cullins started working as a city code inspector in 1997, and after a few internal job changes wound up back in code enforcement, working countywide.
“Basically, I do a combo of city-county commercial and residential,” he said.
In May he cruised past lines of empty houses in the Fort Hill neighborhood, looking for any progress toward demolition and finding little.
“This is the neighborhood I grew up in,” Cullins said. “Makes you sad, now, to come through the old neighborhood and see all the stuff that’s abandoned and neglected. Developers just don’t consider Fort Hill or east Macon — yet.”
From there he drove four miles east to another problem area, the Kings Park neighborhood. Cases there are a source of frustration for him. A dispute over how violations should be legally classified under the consolidated government required him to restart a number of citations from scratch.
It was already a “long and weary” process to get empty houses torn down, following repeated attempts to contact absentee owners, he said.
In Kings Park and other familiar parts of the county, Cullins can point out which houses are owner-occupied, which are rentals owned by out-of-towners, and which empty houses shelter drug dealers. The list doesn’t change much — or quickly.
People often ask him why inspections and citations don’t get results. Often the answer is that his letters are simply ignored, especially by owners in foreclosure. Others mean well but can’t afford repairs, Cullins said.
And if an owner goes so far as getting a building permit, that holds off inspectors for six months — even if nothing is done in that time, he said.
“When you go back to court, there are more excuses as to why ‘I couldn’t get it done,’” Cullins said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.