If we didn’t already know the definition of blight -- after a two-day Unblight Conference held at Mercer University with people from all over the country who are addressing the issue -- a couple of things are clear. Blight has many definitions and areas of Macon fit whatever definitions you want to use. While it’s estimated the city has 4,000 uninhabited houses, according to Mayor Robert Reichert, he would not be surprised if there are many more. In fact, we don’t know how many homes are just sitting there, empty, abandoned or in dilapidated condition. The county is in the process of developing another request for proposal for a mapping study. The Center for Collaborative Journalism is also developing a mapping study.
Why do we care? While the answer to the question seems obvious, there are several items to consider. According to Reichert, a vacant house soon becomes a vandalized property that attracts crime, such as drugs and prostitution, and lowers property values within a quarter mile of the dilapidated property, which impacts sellers, buyers, property tax revenue and school taxes. And there are real human costs, too. “It’s hard,” the mayor said, “to raise children up right in a dilapidated neighborhood. ... It breaks the spirit.”
Why not just demolish the areas in the worst condition? While the county has plans to tear down 100 blighted houses a year, the mayor acknowledges that it would, at that pace, take 40 years. However, more homes join the list annually and the county can’t keep up.
Demolishing a home used to be easy. Firefighters could burn the house for training purposes. Now, homes set for demolition have to be inspected for asbestos and other environmental issues, it costs between $12,000 and $15,000, and the process could take between two and five years.
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After the home is demolished, what do you put in its place? Empty lots are soon overgrown and the vicious cycle of decay continues.
The county is trying to help communities step up and help themselves with its “Five by Five” program where intense city services are brought to bear for five weeks in a five block area. There are Economic and Community Development loans and grants available for people who want to fix up their homes. There are Shalom Zones, where the faith community steps in to help restore hope in those areas and there are other avenues of help.
We all play a part in restoring hope to our struggling communities. This conference provided real-time tools for government and not-for-profit agencies tasked with addressing this issue. Collectively, we can get something done.