Dependable Erection

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Demolition summit

Gary has a brief post up about last night's "Demolition Summit"; Kevin fleshes things out with a bit more detail.

I was not at the forum, owing to some personal matters (i may post about these in the near future), and to be honest, this is not a topic that i've got a whole lot of expertise on. But what i try to do when i find myself in that situation is listen to a bunch of different people who do have the expertise, figure out which of them are making the most cogent arguments and the most sense, and trust their judgement. Gary, in particular, has shown a grasp of the issues and a willingness to share his knowledge that leads me to think he's someone whose lead i can follow.

Quoting Kevin:
The persistent and pervasive argument was, we're having the wrong debate -- and we're fighting the wrong battle. Vacant lots that are the post-demolition remnants of old houses may be a bit better than decaying, rotten wood structures... but only a bit better. Vacant lots don't pay much city tax, they don't attract investors and homeowners, and they sometimes still attract the same old drug dealers and prostitutes, as one young Dillard St. resident living next to a vacant lot pointed out. (See Gary's blog for a recap of his very cogent argument from tonight.)

No, the answer lies in getting these properties out of irresponsible "owners" and putting them in the hands of Durhamites, or non-profits, or first-time homebuyers, or renters, or investors... of someone who has the incentives and resources to recreate a small piece of the neighborhood quilt where a dying house sits today. Flat out, a world in which our only choice is demolition if negligent owners (shockingly) refuse to do right by their properties and their neighborhoods is not one that presents a healthy long-term direction for our city.

One of the saddest parts of tonight's meeting was watching a small number of long-term residents of blighted neighborhoods stand up asking for an immediate resumption of demolitions. Almost to a one, their argument was the same -- these collapsing structures are a pox on our neighborhoods, they've been falling down for years, something has to be done.

I agree completely. And for many of the properties this far along in the demolition process, it may be too late and may be time to bring out the wrecking ball. But it broke my heart to hear stories of houses waiting in this condition for five, seven, ten years. One elderly North-East Central Durham resident called for the resumption of demolitions as soon as possible... even while noting that this demolition program had been in effect for over two decades. (Perhaps, from his perspective, having the city do "something" is better than nothing at all. I can really hear where he's coming from on that.)

Do we really lack such creativity and civic vision to let things get this bad -- to the point where neighbors are literally begging for the bulldozer in East Durham, and Southside, and the West End? Begging for the city to continue a bad public policy because it's all the city is able to do?

In the end, these neighbors and those who oppose the current demolition policy all want the same thing -- attractive, safe, livable neighborhoods without nuisance properties. But this is the moment in time when we have to demand that Durham start getting as energized around real, long-term solutions like such distant metropolitan areas as, oh, Goldsboro, NC.

Now, let me tell a little story. I live in what is fast becoming a very desirable neighborhood. Duke Park has lots of amenities, we're not far from the downtown, easy freeway access, a wide range of housing options (a 900 square foot house on the corner of Edgevale and Markham Ave. recently sold for less than $60,000. A 3400 square foot house on the corner of Roxboro and Markham recently sold for around $350,000), and active and committed neighbors. In general, we don't have many of the issues that plague some other parts of the city.

And yet . . .

1709 Shawnee St.

This rental property is across the street from me. It's been vacant for about 3 months. No one's been by to take care of the lawn this spring.

1700 Shawnee St.

This rental property is four doors up the street. It's been vacant for 7 months. The previous tenants often had 8 or 10 cars parked in the street, on the corner, on the lawn, etc. They bred pit bulls who often roamed the streets. They generated a serious number of complaints to the landlord, who lives in Massachusetts, to the property manager, who ignored them, and eventually to NIS. In fact, over 30 neighborhood residents attended a meeting with Constance Stancil, and representatives of other city and county departments, last September requesting that the city take some action against the landlord. A few minor citations for parking violations were issued. The immediate problem was only resolved when a neighbor who was menaced by the tenant's dogs contacted the landlord and threatened to sue. When the landlord informed the tenants the dogs needed to leave, the tenants decided that their dog breeding business was more important, and moved out in the middle of the night.

Curiously, one of the comments made by Ms. Stancil during her meeting with the neighbors, was that she wanted to make sure that we allunderstood if her inspectors came into the neighborhood to look for housing code violations at this property, that they would also be looking for violations at *all* the properties in the neighborhood. So we needed to be sure that our own houses were in order before requesting such an inspection.

1715 Avondale Dr.

This house is on Avondale Dr., but its back yard opens up onto Shawnee St. It's actually occupied right now. The landlord lives in West Durham. There's a fence in the back yard that is broken, through which the tenant's dog constantly escapes. The lawn has not been mowed this year. We regularly pick up trash from the front and adjacent cul-de-sac of this property. The house next to this one on the left was recently purchased at a foreclosure autction.

Interestingly, both of the previous two photos were taken standing next to houses that are currently on the market. This photo was taken from alongside the house at 1800 Avondale Dr., which is listed at $229,900 for a 2100 square foot, 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath. It is far and away the nicest and best maintained house in the 1600 through 1800 blocks of Avondale. There are at least 5 vacant, and probably abandoned, houses on the east side of Avondale in those blocks, which i did not have time to photograph this morning.

The previous photo was taken while standing next to 406 E. Markham, a 2400 square foot home currently listed at $349,000.

The point of all this is that if Duke Park, which is a fairly well off neighborhood that is home to two former Durham city council members, the editor of the Independent Weekly, and enough community activists to start a softball league, has such a hard time navigating through the maze of city and county services to deal with a relative handful of distressed properties, how difficult must it be in neighborhoods where the number of neglected and abandoned properties is much higher, and the number of people with the time and resources to be community acitivists is much lower?

Kevin asks "whether the city has the right tools to keep individual properties and the neighborhoods that encompass them from falling into blight in the first place, and to handle blighted properties in ways that actually improve neighborhoods?"

From where i sit, the answer is clearly no. And while the rise in overall properties values around town continues unabated as Durham attracts "creative classers" from all over the country, drawn in part by housing prices that are lower than most areas, the "market" can only do so much when it comes to revitalizing struggling neighborhoods, and can not be counted on to continue rising for any predictable length of time. This is an area where the city simply must figure out how to do a better job.

It can start by listening to some of its many passionate advocates.

UPDATE: As i noted in the comments, the landlords at 1709 Shawnee sent someone around today to take care of the jungle in front of the house. I'm hoping they find someone who's passed Good Neighbor 101 to lease the place.

UPDATE 2: Looks like someone was able to reach the property manager or owner for 1700 Shawnee over the weekend while i was out of town. Evidence of weed whacking remains, and the fire hydrant is at least visible. Now i'm debating whether or not to complain about the yard waste that was simply left in the street.

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  • Barry

    Thanks for sharing some of the issues that plague a neighborhood like Duke Park. It has commonalities with the problems in West End, NECD, Southside, but stark differences as well. As you point out, a wider range of policy tools is necessary - to handle the diversity of environments and ownership situations.

    The houses you posted should be, in my opinion, the ideal targets for stepped up code enforcement. The evidence out there suggests that neighborhoods with some property abuse, but average-high property values, respond best to code enforcement with substantive fines and ability/willingness to repair and place liens. The hope is that, in a neighborhood like Duke Park, the investment is worth enough to the owner that they will respond to these.

    That being said, the commonality with neighborhoods such as the aforementioned is ownership by people who, for whatever reason, don't care about the effect of their property on their neighbors, and, often, about the property itself. You point out that some of the rental property has gone unrented and uncared for - this would not seem to be rational behavior. Sometimes the people involved simply have odd ideas about the property, sometimes they are speculating, sometimes it is an inherited property shared by 6 siblings, etc.

    This is why we need tools that lead to repair if the owner doesn't respond. Because if the city starts a proactive inspection program (a good idea in and of itself) but, using some very broad criteria, decides the property is 'unsafe' (what vacant property isn't potentially unsafe if a group of kids get into it, the classic example) the property marches into a process where the endgame is demolition. We can do better.

    Thanks for posting on the issue- I wish you the best on dealing with the issues that kept you away from the meeting.


    By Blogger Gary, at 11:28 AM  

  • Actually, the family business that is forcing me to rearrange my schedule this week is good news. My oldest daughter graduates from college on Saturday. I've had to work a little overtime to take off tomorrow and Friday to head up for the celebration.

    By Blogger Barry Ragin, at 11:34 AM  

  • So Constance Stancil, the director of Durham's Neighborhood Improvement Services is basically threatening people to keep them from reporting code violations? Maybe she's only happy when she's demolishing things and she knows Duke Parkers won't let her tear down the problem buildings. Either that or she hates it when her job cuts into her World of Warfare time ...

    By Blogger Lisa B., at 3:13 PM  

  • It took us about an hour after she left that meeting to figure out that's what she meant.

    By the way, don't know if anyone from Bergman Rentals reads this blog, but the lawn at 1709 Shawnee was finally cut today. They've been reasonably responsive over the past year or so, so it was a surprise that it took so long to get them to act on this simple job.

    By Blogger Barry Ragin, at 4:26 PM  

  • Barry -- thanks for the link, but more importantly, for sharing those Duke Park photos and local challenges with NIS. It's a reminder that all of our neighborhoods continue to struggle with absentee landlords and others who don't take care of properties.

    I actually walked away from Monday's meeting more hopeful that we'll end up with better tools and better solutions for the problems we face in Durham's urban neighborhoods. Not that I'm necessarily convinced City staff are going to turn things around by themselves... but the presence of our councilfolk (save Stith -- whose noted absence drew chuckles from the audience) in light of the general opposition to continuing the status quo leaves me hopeful we can end up at a better place.

    By Blogger Kevin, at 8:20 AM  

  • That's good news, Kevin. But one thing i've experienced with Council is that while they're looking at a problem, they're all over it, but as soon as they turn away to look at the next issue, the last one just disappears down the memory hole.

    Citizens need to be constant in presenting their issues to Council, and really, who has that kind of time and energy?

    Case in point, which resonates personally with me, is the Durham Walks plan. Council appropriated $313K in the summer of 2005 to hire a consultant to inventory the city's sidewalks, crosswalks, and trails, to survey the community about where pedestrian safety features were needed, and what kind, and to put together a program prioritizing construction, educational programs, and PR that would encourage people to get out of their cars and walk more whenever possible, and feel safe doing it.

    The plan was presented a year ago, and adopted by Council.

    Unfortunately, after Bike and Ped Program Coordinator Alison Carpenter left her position last year, no one in the city has exactly the same responsibilities. My understanding is that Alison's job is essentially shared by transportation staff.

    That's really a problem, because what it does is put us back into the situation where, rather than following a citywide blueprint, Council will simply be responding to whoever squawks the loudest for new sidewalks, crosswalks, and trails.

    Which is exactly the scenario i tried to get written out of the plan in the first place.

    What that means for me, as an individual and representative of the Duke Park neighborhood, is that i will be lobbying for the city to use its bond money and capital improvement funds to install sidewalks along Avondale Dr., regardless of where Avondale fits in the Durham Walks plan. (As i recall, Avondale was an "A", or top, priority project, so i don't feel too badly about that.) But again, there are other "A" priority projects that will not have an advocate, and will slide down the list.

    When the city installed sidewalks a couple of years ago along Markham, between Washington and Buchanan, it made a huge difference in the appearance of the "no-man's land" between the Trinity Park and Duke Park neighborhoods. I believe that sidewalks along Avondale would have a similar effect. At the very least, the people waiting for the bus at the bottom of the hill on the north end of Avondale wouldn't have to stand in the mud after a rain.

    By Blogger Barry Ragin, at 9:03 AM  

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