Bibb County has a blight problem. Here are some ideas to solve the widespread issue

More from the series

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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Murdine Height has lived in the same house on Buena Vista Drive in west Macon since 1964. Over the past 55 years, the 92-year-old has watched her once-peaceful street slowly crumble before her eyes.

Most of her neighbors have died, and their heirs have either neglected their properties or sold them to landlords who live as far away as Houston, Texas. Paint peels from the walls of the vacant homes that line the street and weeds sprout several feet high from their unkempt yards.

Height’s three-bedroom house, with its neatly trimmed lawn and crisp coat of light gray paint, is her own private oasis on the corner. Inside, she feels safe. But Height doesn’t spend much time on her front porch anymore. Not since she started hearing gunshots and motorcycles zooming down the road at all hours of the night.

Height misses the neighborhood she moved into all those years ago, where she and her husband raised their daughter, where every home on the block once housed a two-parent family. Now, Buena Vista Drive is a dumping grounds for dirty diapers and broken bottles. Abandoned cars rust in driveways and dead pine trees loom overhead, threatening to fall on Height’s home.

“About 19, 20 years, the neighborhood has been going down, down, down, down” Height said.

Murdine Height may be 92 years old, but she still keeps her house on Buena Vista Drive in tip-top shape. She wishes the other properties owners would do the same, she said at her home on May 21, 2019. Samantha Max smax@macon.com

Height is doing her part to keep the neighborhood clean. She sweeps the pine needles that fall on her driveway and picks up the empty chip bags and dirty condoms that strangers toss in her yard. Her daughter, who lives nearby, said she’s reached out to their county commissioner, the mayor and code enforcement, hoping someone will urge the absentee homeowners on the street to maintain their properties. No action has been taken yet.

Height’s story resembles so many others I’ve heard while reporting on blight in Bibb County for my Building Blocks from Blight series. In the past five months, I have interviewed more than 40 individuals and visited over a dozen neighborhoods. I’ve received countless phone calls, emails and Facebook messages from residents who are frustrated by the toll vacant properties have taken on their neighborhoods. From Kings Park in the east to Lake Tobesofkee in the west, residents feel like they’ve been forgotten.

Bibb County’s blight problem is overwhelming and complex. Dozens of hours spent reporting this series revealed there won’t be one simple solution to the 3,738 unoccupied structures that clutter the streets. But there’s no shortage of ideas to address this issue.

‘We just feel powerless’

Blight affects neighborhoods throughout the county, but it looks different in different parts of town. Some people I interviewed for this series associate the word “blight” with the desolate stretches of boarded-up houses and vacant lots that surround their homes. Others called me to complain that their neighbors weren’t cutting their grass or pulling their trash bins out of the street after garbage collection.

A lot of people I spoke with don’t like using the word blight at all.

Calling an area blighted sends a message that it’s no longer valued, said Beverly Pitts, who grew up in east Macon and has owned a beauty salon in the neighborhood since 1991.

“It’s a slight. You know, it’s a cut,” she said. “In our communities, there are the remnants of people that care, and it affects them negatively.”

But whether I was talking to homeowners in north Macon or community organizers in Pleasant Hill, everyone I interviewed seemed to agree that more needs to be done to revitalize struggling neighborhoods.

“We need more resources. We need more help,” said Debra Rollins executive director of Rebuilding Macon, an organization that renovates the houses of elderly and disabled homeowners.

“I think we just feel powerless, because the commissioners aren’t working fast enough on this problem,” said Jennifer Grenko, a member of the North Highlands Neighborhood Association.

County Commissioner Elaine Lucas agreed.

“We’re just losing the race with blight,” she said. Lucas thinks the county isn’t doing enough to build up “our fragile areas in this community.”

“The people who live in these neighborhoods, the neighborhood associations, they’ve asked over and over for some help,” Lucas said. “And those resources have not come.”

The door stands wide open on a dilapidated vacant home in Pleasant Hill, surrounded by unkempt, bulldozed lots on either side. Samantha Max smax@macon.com

The people I spoke with said they were tired of looking at dilapidated vacant houses and overgrown lots. They were tired of driving past trash and furniture dumped on their street, abandoned cars left to rot in unused driveways and burnt-out structures where homeless individuals have started to squat. They were tired of sending letters to government officials and calling code enforcement and filing complaints on SeeClickFix, an app that allows citizens to report issues in their neighborhoods.

Most of all, they wanted someone to listen — to hear their concerns and offer a solution. Few people I interviewed said they had received a response.

“That’s Macon,” said Patricia Westfaul, who has lived next to an empty house on Lake Tobesofkee for 14 years. “You never get to the right person, or, if you talk to this person, it’s pass the book to that person. And that’s really not the right person. And then you get passed to somebody else, and then finally they say, ‘We’ll call you back.’ And you never hear from anybody.”

How Bibb County could tackle blight

Though I heard plenty of complaints while reporting this series, the people I interviewed also offered dozens of potential solutions.

Pleasant Hill activist Antonio Williams said education should be the first step to strengthen neighborhoods. The ultimate goal, he said, is not only to improve living conditions, but also to have more productive residents. If he had unlimited resources, Williams said, he would bring in job training programs, GED courses and counseling services. He would also clean up the “kudzu” jungles that have consumed the vacant lots where bulldozed houses once stood.

“It’s just an ongoing effort to try to restore what I envision of Pleasant Hill,” Williams said.

Kings Park resident Tony Mathis said he would provide more activities in his community to keep kids out of trouble. His neighbor, neighborhood association President Theresa Hugley, hopes to offer more programs for both children and seniors at the newly renovated community center in the heart of the subdivision.

Hundreds of photos, notes and family mementos fill Theresa Hugley’s “Wall of Fame” in her house on Kings Park Circle. She feels a deep connection to the home, where she’s lived since 1985. Samantha Max smax@macon.

“We’re trying to reach down to get the younger generation,” said Alte Moss, another member of the neighborhood association. He wants to encourage younger renters and homeowners to care for their properties, just like he does.

Some people I interviewed wanted the county devote more funding to bulldoze abandoned properties or hire more code enforcement staff. Others thought it might be helpful to train residents in the basics of property maintenance. Multiple people I interviewed suggested that the county restore vacant property and allow homeless individuals to live there.

One issue Mayor Pro Tem Al Tillman pointed out is that the county doesn’t own most blighted homes. The properties belong to individuals who are legally responsible for maintaining them — not the local government.

But if he had a magic wand, he said, “I would use my executive order, by partnering with the Land Bank Authority and the courts. And every time that there’s a terrible, blighted structure, we either tear it down or acquire it and sell it to somebody.”

Until the state of Georgia passes new legislation to hold landlords accountable — especially those who live out of town or out of state — the county’s options are limited, Tillman said. But he’s looking to other cities for ideas.

Nearly 160 vacant properties line the streets of Fort Hill in east Macon. The greenery in front of one house in the neighborhood grows so tall a visitor couldn’t even walk through the front door. Samantha Max smax@macon.com
$2.1 million grant

In Baltimore, a city with nearly 17,000 empty structures, the state and city governments have devoted a combined $93.5 million to bulldoze as many dilapidated city blocks as resources will allow. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh also created a $52 million Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund, which will partner the city’s housing department with residents to rehabilitate neighborhoods overcome by blight.

Chicago’s Large Lot Program allows community members to buy city-owned vacant lots in their neighborhoods for just $1. More than 1,200 have been sold since the initiative’s December 2014 launch.

And in New Orleans, where more than 43,000 blighted properties filled the formerly flooded streets in 2010, then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu created BlightSTAT. The project brought together representatives from multiple city departments to discuss developments and set priorities in the city’s battle against blight. More than 15,000 vacant properties were demolished or restored between 2010 and 2015.

Time for a community facelift

On a steamy Saturday in May, parents, children and volunteers gathered outside of the Bobby Jones Performing Arts Center on Monroe Street for a block party. As kids blew bubbles and munched on hot dogs and chips, their parents eyed a row of poster boards lined up outside the once-bustling building, which has sat vacant for years.

The goal of the event, organized by Street Talk: The Bobby Jones PAC Project and Historic Macon, was to determine a new destiny for the empty structure. Passersby could read through five different proposals and vote for their favorite.

Tonja Khabir, the mastermind behind the block party, hopes to restore the space where she once cheered friends on at dance recitals and celebrated birthday parties at the shuttered Booker T. Washington Community Center across the street.

Visitors look over proposals for a new use for the vacant Bobby Jones Performing Arts Center on Monroe Street at a block party on May 19, 2019. Samantha Max smax@macon.com

The goal of the block party, Khabir said during an interview in March, was to allow “community members to come out and look at this building and say, ‘What is it that you envision this space? What ideas do you have? What do you think you would like this space to be?’” She plans to share the most popular proposal with the Macon-Bibb County Government, so that, “as developers come and think about this space, they can have the input of the community.”

It’s important for residents to take the initiative to improve living conditions in their own neighborhood, said Sherman Kind, a community organizer in Fort Hill. Otherwise, he said, someone else might come in and do it for them.

“I hope the community understands it’s time to give it a facelift,” Kind said. “It could be big, amazing, with a little tender loving and care. But we got to act now.”

This story is part of a series in The Telegraph investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. You can listen to the Building Blocks from Blight podcast on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud or Stitcher

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.