What if the house next to yours had a tree through the roof, and the tree had been there for months?
What if your neighbor lived in a house where rain poured through the roof, or that the constant view from your living room window was a burned-out shell that had been a haven for illicit activity?
What if you couldn’t sell your home because your block was dotted with yards so overgrown that they hid everything but the decaying houses that peeked out from dead brush and piles of garbage?
Too many Macon residents find themselves living next to the dreaded “house next door.” Civic pride? Gone. Stable property values? Gone. Well-intended neighbors? Gone.
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Left behind are the folks who have nowhere else to go -- older people on fixed incomes and residents in financial straits. In some cases, there are those committed to stay despite the severity of the blight threatening to snuff out any semblance of neighborhood.
The Center for Collaborative Journalism -- a partnership of The Telegraph, Mercer University’s journalism program and Georgia Public Broadcasting -- has spent much of the year looking deeply at the causes and effects of the discarded, abandoned residential buildings that residents told us are robbing our city of vitality, value and, most importantly, hope.
Dozens of residents attended community forums earlier this year that followed up on the CCJ’s first community engagement project, “Macon in the Mirror.” It became clear that blight is a rot threatening the health of our city. Residents cited example after example -- not that we hadn’t all seen more than our share of homes and buildings in various stages of decay -- as well as freeways and thoroughfares turned into public garbage disposals.
On Sunday we begin a series sharing with readers what we have learned about the substandard housing problem in Macon. The problem is immense. There may be 2,000 blighted homes or 5,000. No one is quite sure. But people who live near them are fed up. They want something done.
If the scope of the problem is hard to assess, solutions are even more complex.
A colleague who read an earlier Telegraph story about problems with an abandoned home on Hartley Street asked more than once if the reporter had considered whether judges in housing court were too lenient with scofflaw homeowners, issuing repeat citations with no real consequences.
That was before CCJ staffer Debbie Blankenship spent months sitting in on housing court and hearing case after case of hard luck stories and extenuating circumstances: homeowners who are critically ill, or in nursing homes; heirs who can’t be found; people who simply have no money to fix up a house and no place to go. Some people didn’t even realize they still owned homes; they assumed their evictions included forfeited property only to learn that banks failed to file new deeds, leaving homeowners on the hook.
That doesn’t mean that nothing is being done or that nothing works. Our series includes victories and success stories in the making, from Bartlett Crossing to Lynmore Estates to Beall’s Hill. Residents, churches, nonprofits and a university have partnered with local government and federal agencies to turn around residential areas that some folks would have just as soon discarded.
But there is so much more work to do. Macon Mayor Robert Reichert acknowledges that the city’s goal to demolish 100 houses a year is not nearly sufficient. It will take a focused, almost Herculean effort by local government, state government, nonprofits, banks and the courts to make real progress.
Taking an eyes-wide-open view of the enormity of the problem is a first step. Knowing what tools are most effective and what has bred success is another. We hope this series will shed light on the issues and prompt a more committed response from all those with a stake in the outcome.
For those who don’t see substandard housing as in issue in their neighborhoods, know this: Blight bleeds. Commercial blight, for instance, is equally appalling and not limited to certain communities or neighborhoods. We know that light must be shed on that topic as well. The CCJ plans to report on commercial blight in the coming months.
As always, I welcome your comments.
Sherrie Marshall is The Telegraph’s executive editor. She can be reached at (478) 744-4340 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also follow her on Twitter@shemarsh.