‘Like a cigarette burned’: The complicated truth about blight in Bibb County

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Building Blocks from Blight

The Telegraph is investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. Over the next few months, Telegraph reporter Samantha Max will profile local residents affected by blight in their own communities. If you’d like to be interviewed, you can email her at smax@macon.com or call her at (478) 744-4306.

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Amanda White has lived in Pleasant Hill for 62 years.

It’s the only place she’s ever called home.

White remembers riding her bike through streets where families filled every house, children played after school and neighbors all knew one another.

“Everybody was like family, you know. We weren’t blood relatives, but everybody was like family when we was growing up,” she said.

White hardly recognizes the Pleasant Hill of 2019. Dozens of houses sit vacant and dozens more have been torn down. The cozy yellow home on Third Avenue where she was raised is falling apart. So is the house next door.

And it’s not just Pleasant Hill — Bibb County in its entirety has a blight problem.

A 2017 property survey found nearly 4,000 structures throughout the county are unoccupied. Most of those properties are in fair or poor condition, and over 400 are in such rough shape they can’t be saved by any means except demolition.

The growing body of uninhabitable homes did not emerge overnight. Decades of population loss, absentee landlords and a lack of investment in the county’s most impoverished neighborhoods has led to widespread urban decay.

Local leaders hope to save blighted communities, before they fall even further into disrepair. But just as the decomposition took years to set in, it will take years to revitalize.

“These neighborhoods did not become blighted overnight. They’re not gonna be turned around overnight,” said Alison Goldey, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Land Bank Authority. “And I think it’s important to pick your areas of strength in a neighborhood and to work from those points of strength.”

In the past, the county demolished homes one at a time as funding allowed. But in recent years, local officials have taken a more targeted approach, focusing on areas with a critical mass of blighted structures that can be torn down and redeveloped.

In 2015, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority issued a $14 million bond to the Macon-Bibb County Commission, which has largely fueled the local government’s recent blight remediation efforts. Each of the nine commissioners received $1 million to address blight as they saw fit, and the remaining $5 million went toward other neighborhood improvement projects.

Since the county’s blight remediation project began in earnest in late 2017, 227 vacant properties have been demolished.

Just over $100,000 from the blight bonds remain.

“It’s a finite problem,” said County Commissioner Virgil Watkins. “It’s a matter of how we go about financing that need.”

Watkins is working to secure a second round of bonds to fill the funding gap when the first set runs out. The county has also allocated approximately $11 million in special purpose local option sales tax revenue and about $300,000 from the general fund for blight remediation.

It’ll take about $30 million to eradicate the issue altogether, Watkins said. He thinks the investment will pay off in the long run.

“When we actually take ownership of the problem and remediate it, we do ourselves a whole host of services upfront that I think ultimately saves the government money as well as citizens,” Watkins said.

But first the county will have to find a way to finance such a hefty investment.

Blight takes a toll on communities

Cass Hatcher has seen the impact of blight up close in his three years as Bibb County’s blight consultant.

On a sunny Wednesday in January, Hatcher drove through some of the city’s most battered neighborhoods, where one house after the next had deteriorated to the point of disrepair.

“They are very unsafe, uninhabitable structures that are basically falling in on themselves due to neglect,” Hatcher said as he rode past a stretch of vacant homes on a quiet street in Pleasant Hill. “Lot of them, probably, the taxes have not been paid in years. And they’re in a state that they cannot be repaired. So, the best use for it is to go ahead and demolish it.”

Hatcher has transformed such blocks of run-down houses into parks and community centers, and he’s worked with nonprofit organizations to build new homes where blighted structures once stood.

The so-called “Blight Czar” is open to different options to address the issue. His main priority is to clean up neighborhoods before they collapse.

“First impressions are everything, and you don’t want the first impression to be blighted structures as you drive down the street,” Hatcher said.

No one wants abandoned homes in their neighborhood, he said.

Concentrated blight reduces tax revenue and drives down the value of nearby properties, studies show.

Researchers have also drawn connections between blight and crime. A 2016 study of low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia found that firearm violence decreased when vacant lots were properly maintained. Another study found demolishing vacant buildings in Saginaw, Michigan reduced crime on the block by as much as 8 percent.

“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,” said John Baker, building abatement manager for Macon-Bibb County Business Development Services. He oversees the inspection of blighted structures across the county.

Vacant properties also take a toll on the morale of those who live nearby.

Residents of blighted neighborhoods often face higher rates of mental distress, chronic illness, sexually transmitted diseases and poor nutrition, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute. Urban decay near schools can also affect students’ academic success and social skills.

“It’s sad to me when I drive by a school and I see those vacant houses out there and I see those children walking by,” Goldey said. “They deserve better.”

A team effort to tackle blight

Goldey is part of a coalition of local government officials, nonprofit organizations, real estate developers and concerned citizens who have banded together in recent years to tackle Bibb County’s blight epidemic.

Historic Macon, Macon Area Habitat for Humanity, the Macon-Bibb County Land Bank Authority, code enforcement inspectors and county commissioners each play a role in Bibb County’s revitalization efforts.

“It’s been a team effort,” Hatcher said.

Before a structure can be considered for demolition or rehabilitation, code enforcement inspectors must deem the property uninhabitable. But with nearly 4,000 vacant structures throughout the county and only four code enforcement officers to inspect them, it could take years to work through the excess of deserted properties.

When a home is eventually approved for demolition, it costs between $13,000 and $20,000 to tear down. Each structure must be purchased and tested for hazardous materials before it can be bulldozed, which stretches limited resources further still.

A backlog has also built up in the courts. Macon-Bibb County Tax Commissioner Wade McCord auctions off hundreds of delinquent properties on the courthouse steps each year. But McCord’s office failed to sell over 600 of those homes between 2009 and 2018.

“Properties of a certain value do not sell. Just plain and simple,” he said.

Many delinquent properties are in such poor shape that they’re worth very little to buyers. But because the amount of taxes owed must be factored into the auction price, McCord said, the cost is often too high to justify the purchase of a blighted home.

The tax commissioner hopes to work around that. The County Commission recently approved McCord’s proposal to sell delinquent properties for less than the amount of taxes owed when they don’t originally sell at auction.

County Commissioner Joe Allen has also proposed a new blight tax that would increase taxes for owners who don’t maintain their unoccupied properties. All revenue from the higher tax rate would go toward community redevelopment, Allen’s ordinance states.

McCord knows such initiatives won’t completely resolve the issue. But he thinks his proposition will at least help.

“Blight’s not getting any better,” he said at a Blight Task Force meeting in January. “This is another option to try.”

More work to be done

The Macon-Bibb County blight initiative is in a moment of transition. Hundreds of dilapidated structures have been bulldozed, while a few thousand slowly deteriorate across the county.

“I think we are always going to have blight,” said Goldey, of the Land Bank Authority. “But I think the goal would be to be able to have much better control over blight, to eliminate as much blight as we can, and there’s some strategies out there for that.”

Goldey would like to see a comprehensive plan in place for the county’s next steps.

Hatcher is working on that plan. He thinks the key is to find neighborhoods with enough blighted structures to tear down a whole stretch and build something new.

“The secret is this,” Hatcher said. “Once you start redeveloping in the neighborhood at one end, it’s like a cigarette burned, and it starts redeveloping the other end.”

Hatcher has built community centers, pocket parks and cozy new homes where vacant structures once teemed with rodents, peeling paint and unruly weeds. He sees the potential in run-down areas that have been overlooked for years.

Over the next few months, The Telegraph will tell the story of those neighborhoods once overcome by blight that have since been transformed into something new. We’ll be knocking on doors in areas at the heart of the county’s blight remediation project and speaking with residents about the changes they’ve witnessed in their communities over the years.

Check back for updates in the weeks to come.

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 https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. She joined The Telegraph in June of 2018 and reports on the health of the community. Samantha graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2018. As an undergraduate student, she interned for the Medill Justice Project, Hoy (Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language publication) and NPR-affiliate station WYPR in her hometown of Baltimore. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.