The House Next Door

Houses condemned five years ago are still standing. But why?

A portion of Patterson Street near Miller Middle School leads to a series of abandoned and dilapidated structures, some of them spray-painted with messages asking for the properties to be torn down.

For Robert West, who owns a house on the street that he rents out, frustration is off the charts over the state of the neighborhood — and the lack of progress that Macon-Bibb County has made.

Some of the houses in the 700 and 800 blocks of Patterson have court-approved condemnation orders that date back four and five years, but the structures still stand.

Not only are those houses in disrepair, but in some cases weeds and other vegetation have made them ripe environments for rodents, snakes and more.

“If they won’t enforce a court order signed by a judge, … that pretty much tells you if a citizen or taxpayers calls and files a complaint, they don’t care if they respond or not because they know nothing is going to happen,” West said.

“It really amazes me they can sit on court orders like that on properties that are dragging down property values in neighborhoods.”

There are 1,517 blighted structures in the county, of which 499 have court-approved demolition orders, according to code enforcement figures through early April.

But the number of unsafe structures is likely much higher, and a blight survey that’s underway will provide a more accurate number.

County Commissioner Virgil Watkins is using $183,600 of his $1 million in blight bond money to pay for a service that maps every parcel throughout the county’s urban redevelopment area.

Once it’s completed, people will be able to access the Loveland Technologies blight database online and provide updates on the status of properties. About 33,000 parcels are being surveyed, covering the former city limits and some sections of the former unincorporated Bibb County, Watkins said.

One of the most revealing details from the mapping, Watkins said, has been the number of abandoned homes and vacant lots being used as dumping grounds. He said he would also like to engage officials on ways to improve neighborhoods without demolishing a blighted house.

“I think we’ll have some community conversations on how much demolition we do,” Watkins said. “I think we can make a lot of the neighbors very happy if we can cut the grass, move the illegal dumping and secure the (structure).”

New approach takes time

County officials say they feel West’s and other residents’ discouragement. In the last couple of years, the county has changed its mode of operation in dealing with the serious problem, Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said.

When court orders are filed, there’s still a lengthy process — from finding funding to title searches, abatement and more — that must be finished before any demolition can happen, Floore said.

For years, the city had taken a spot approach to blight. Between 2013 and the summer of 2015, 225 homes were torn down. Funding for demolitions had fluctuated over the years, and in 2013 the Macon City Council set aside $530,500 — doubling the amount of money used annually.

But after that string of demolitions — which barely put a dent in the county’s blight problem — Macon-Bibb leaders decided on a new way to deal with the issue. They began emphasizing a targeted approach after visiting cities such as Detroit and Flint, Michigan, to see how their leaders dealt with the large number of dilapidated houses and vacant lots.

Among the recommendations were refocusing on pockets of neighborhoods at a time, working closely with land bank authorities that could acquire and resell properties, and also creating a detailed survey of properties.

Officials said there needed to be an end use for the blighted properties, possibly a park or green space, that could replace the torn down property. There has also been some success over the years with the 5X5 Neighborhood Improvement Plan, where cleanups are targeted in an area for five weeks.

“They said don’t do a scattershot, communitywide approach,” Floore said. “You won’t make an impact, and you won’t catch up.”

Now the goal is to have a large impact within a given area instead of simply tearing down a house, but then problems such as overgrown grass and weeds crop up, Floore said.

“Even with the switch to the new, more focused blight initiative where we’re trying to have a more sustainable impact, we get the same concerns — ‘why not this house, why not that house’ we were getting when we were doing 100 homes a year,” he said. “We couldn’t move fast enough with the demolishing.”

Blight Map

Slow process

Each property has its own story with how it became blighted. In many cases, for example, there are years of delinquent property taxes owed

“Every house is different. ... I’ve heard of cases where the owner passed away and left it to multiple grandchildren, and there’s no clear owner,” Floore said.

In 2015, the Macon-Bibb County Commission voted to issue $14 million in blight bonds. There was $2 million for Beall's Hill neighborhood improvements and another $2 million for a Wise Avenue athletic field. Another $9 million was divvied up among the nine commissioners, who could decide what projects to spend the money on. Another $1 million was set aside for community engagement and waste disposal.

“I think it was used judiciously,” Commissioner Bert Bivins said of the blight bond funds. “All of us had some input. We voted on the projects, and the projects are in the process of being done. It’s a slow process, but I think when people see what’s done, I think they will at least have a feeling we’re making an effort to do something in those neighborhoods.”

Since 2016, 86 structures have been torn down to make way for projects, such as a south Macon playground and a Kings Park community center, through the help of the Macon-Bibb blight czar and Macon-Bibb County Land Bank Authority. Another 15 structures will be torn down by the end of the month, according to blight czar Cass Hatcher.

Bivins did say he has been frustrated by the lack of discussion among officials about how more than $20 million dedicated for blight in a 2018 special sales tax initiative will be used.

“I tell (people) all the time, if you’re complaining about blight, I understand,” Bivins said. “The $9 million is not going to get close to getting everything, but we’re going to get started. It’s going to take a long time. It’s taken decades for these areas to get where they are. They got that way because they were neglected.”

West, however, said he believes more could and should be done to tackle blight without so much red tape.

“Everyone seems to get stuck in the mud because of these rules and regulations, and nobody is effectively doing their jobs,” he said.

Stanley Dunlap: 478-744-4623, @stan_telegraph

Fighting blight by mapping parcels in Macon-Bibb County