At about 11 a.m. Wednesday, John Baker pointed a tiny, silver flashlight at the bathroom ceiling in unit 10 B of the Colonial Terrace Apartments on Houston Avenue. Most days, he sits at a desk filling out paperwork. But on this particular September morning, he was staring at a black, moldy patch of ceiling.
Baker is the building abatement manager for Macon-Bibb County Business Development Services. His division inspects properties throughout the county to ensure that they’re up to health and safety codes. It’s a big job – since the start of the year, he’s received more than 1,350 complaints about leaky pipes, overgrown grass and a slew of other health hazards. But his department, which once had a staff of 12, is now down to just four employees, including Baker.
“We’re stretched very, very thin right now,” Baker said.
Business Development Services, which oversees Baker’s unit, the building division and business licensing, is one of the busiest county departments, according to Interim Director Ricky Fuller. But this year, it received less funding in the county budget than it has since 2014.
In past years, county commissioners have allotted between $1.9-$2 million to the department. For fiscal 2019, they got just $1,777,000, and the building abatement division is bearing the brunt of the budget cuts.
“I do not think that right now at this time we have the manpower that we need to be able to do the job that we’re tasked with doing,” Fuller said. “Unfortunately, that’s part of the reason we’ve had to curtail some of our inspections.”
Fuller said the building and abatement division started to shrink about two years ago. Employees began to retire or move on to other jobs one after the next, and no one came to take their places. Previous directors chose not to fill the vacancies, and suddenly the once-bustling department had been gutted down to the bare bones.
Three support staff members used to fill out inspectors’ stacks of paperwork, enter data into the computer system and perform other clerical tasks, such as answering phone calls and responding to emails. Now, Baker and the other inspectors have less time to do field work, because they’re stuck in the office doing data entry.
“We’re trying now to see if we can figure out ways to try to get the staffing back up, because I think it’s a very valuable service, especially when you drive around Macon and look at the issues that we have,” Fuller said. “We need that staffing level, and probably higher than what it was, to properly address the substandard housing in Macon and Bibb County.”
‘We couldn’t do that by ourselves’
Baker’s seen a lot of blight in his nearly 40 years as a code enforcement inspector. As he drove through south Macon in between inspections on Wednesday, Baker pointed out half a dozen boarded up homes, demolition sites and dilapidated structures. On Triple Hill Drive, Baker noticed three partially burnt-down houses and a handful of vacant low-rise apartment buildings that hadn’t been demolished yet.
“We get a lot of calls from people on this street, because they want their street to look better, and they don’t want to have to drive past all that stuff, just like everybody else,” he said.
But the department is so backlogged that the staff hasn’t had the time or resources to respond to all of the complaints yet. Baker said it costs about $15,000 to clear and demolish each site. The department has issued court orders for the demolition of 640 structures throughout the county, and about 1,300 other cases have yet to make their way through the courts system.
“There’s a lot of cost involved in trying to clean up these properties and maintain it in a safe manner,” Baker said. “And unfortunately, demolition takes care of the immediate problem, but then – then we have a vacant lot that needs maintenance and, more often than not, the owners abandon the property.”
When lots sit vacant, the community faces the consequences. It’s a “chicken and an egg” problem, Baker said. In neighborhoods struck by blight, he said, property values tend to decrease, residents abandon their homes and bit by bit the area starts to fall apart.
“As the abandonment increases, the crime increases, because there’s opportunities for people to hide in these homes. There’s opportunities for people to conduct their illegal activities out of those homes,” Baker said. “So it’s sort of a vicious circle to try to stabilize a neighborhood like this and revitalize it.”
Baker thinks of his department as a social service agency. Many of the people he and his inspectors meet with are experiencing some sort of crisis – family, financial or even mental-health related. They often encounter elderly residents living alone, children in unsafe homes and hoarders who can’t bare to part with the mounds of debris that fill their home and yard.
“The inspectors ... they’re not only technical people looking for code violations and trying to get code violations corrections,” Baker said. “They’re also, to an extent, social workers trying to get resources to people that need it. So, we make lots of referrals to agencies that might be able to help these people.”
Neither Baker nor his colleagues are formally trained in social work. For the most part, he said, they learn on the job.
“It is hard on the inspectors,” Baker said. “I mean, it’s – it’s really kind of difficult to see the living conditions that some people have.”
But agencies like the Division of Family and Children’s Services, Animal Control and United Way play a vital role in the work they do, Baker said.
“We couldn’t do that by ourselves. We couldn’t do that without the help of Adult Protective Services or any of the mental health agencies that are around and/or the family members. We just wouldn’t be able to do it.”
‘It takes some time’
A shortage of code enforcement inspectors takes a toll on the community at large, Fuller said.
“If people are not keeping their property up, it’s costing every taxpayer in this county,” he said.
Vacant lots drain county expenses, Fuller said, because they make neighborhoods less healthy and safe. They also often require attention from law enforcement and the fire department. Without attention from building abatement, property owners aren’t held liable when their lots fall into disrepair.
“Nobody wants to lives in a neighborhood with junky homes and stuff,” Fuller said. “We need to try to get these folks to step up to the plate and take responsibility and do something with structures – either rehab ‘em or take ‘em down, at least so they can’t be used by the criminal element in the community.”
Baker wishes he and the other inspectors could spend more time getting to know landlords and residents, so that they could better resolve issues when they arise, or even prevent them in the first place. But with such a big caseload, it’s hard to make time.
Earlier this week, he spent half an hour chatting with a pastor who had received some complaints for code violations at her church. An inspection of her smoke detectors turned into an extended tour or the newly renovated two-story facility.
Baker had to get back to the office to fill out some paperwork, but he didn’t rush the meeting. He wanted to make sure the pastor got all of the information she needed to get the building up to code.
“It takes some time,” Baker said. “But usually good things come out of it.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.