04/03/08 — Five houses slated for summer demolition

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Five houses slated for summer demolition

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 3, 2008 1:46 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- For Danny Keel, bulletholes in a window that used to keep the weather out of a home on the south side of town provide a stark reminder of the stakes.

So does the charred, rotting frame that used to house a front door along Slocumb Street.

Abandoned structures offer a safe haven for gang members, loners and drug dealers, he said.

And for everybody else, they are, at the very least, eyesores and safety hazards.

So for the past three years, Mount Olive's minimum housing inspector has targeted areas of blight around town -- responding to nuisance calls that come in, driving through neighborhoods and knocking on doors when he spots a violation.

His message is simple.

"We would rather have a house that's fixed up than another weeded lot to keep up," Keel said. "But if they don't fix them up, we are going to take them down."

Five homes described as "dilapidated" and "uninhabitable" are scheduled to be demolished this summer.

Still, Keel insists that the majority of residents cited for violations of the Minimum Housing Code -- "about four out of five" -- are eager to make the necessary repairs.

"We have a lot of repair work going on right now, in the south side of town specifically," he said. "These people, they know we are serious."

Town Manager Charles Brown said officials have a responsibility to take the issue seriously.

"It's a quality of life issue," he said. "If you have one resident who takes care of their house and makes sure the yard looks nice and everything, but then next door, you have windows broken out and the grass isn't cut ... drug traffic is coming and going ... that's not fair to the person who looks after their property."

And it is not fair to a town defined by the historic homes and downtown that have made it thrive for generations.

"Mount Olive is a beautiful place. It's a great place to live," Brown said. "It's our job to help keep it that way."

For a town manager, that means convincing board members to earmark a portion of the budget for demolition projects.

But with an ailing economy, that can be a daunting task.

"You have people who say, 'Well, you need to put x number of dollars in your budget to address this problem next year,'" Brown said. "Well, the problem there is, putting an expenditure like that in your budget without revenue to support that is pointless. You can't do it. It's just like your checking account at home."

Still, close to $30,000 is available this year, and Brown said he does not recall ever seeing that much spent on demolition by neglect.

That money, he added, should cover the five houses already slated to come down.

But with roughly 40 more in Keel's sights, he knows cleaning up the town's neighborhoods is going to take time.

"Our sources of revenue, it's pretty obvious what those are. We have got property tax, sales tax, fees and things of that nature," Brown said. "Nobody wants those to go up and yet, they want to see those dollars in there for demolition projects. ... We have to work with the revenue we know we have got coming in and try to do as much as we can. We have to be smart with our money, just like any family. You really have to watch how you spend those dollars."

So how does it happen that a house enters the minimum housing process?

Keel said it starts with a violation -- anything from broken windows and rotting wood to falling ceilings and lead paint.

Once a call comes in or a citation has been issued by town inspectors, the property owner is sent a letter.

"I get calls from people complaining about rental houses or eyesores in the community quite a bit," Keel said. "I jump right on them."

He offers the owner a list of repairs that need to be made and some advice on how to get the work done quickly.

"I don't just go in there and say, 'Hey,- I'm going to tear your house down,'" he said. "I do everything I can."

His method, he said, is working.

But he admits that in some cases owners are reluctant to make the necessary repairs.

So he turns up the heat.

"That's when I get the town attorney involved," Keel said. "He will send a letter requesting that the owner meet with the board."

Several months -- and attempts -- later, if adequate repairs are not made, he asks the board to order condemnation and demolition.

And that was the case last month when four houses were brought before the town's elected body.

Brown believes Keel is performing a valuable service to the town.

And his hope is that generations from now, every house within the town limits will be a source of pride for the community.

"If you take six, seven houses down a year, eventually you will get the problem addressed," Brown said. "It can't happen all at one time, but it can happen."