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Vacant houses challenge Macon, midstate

Vacant homes challenge Macon, midstate
Smith Sinclair Jr. gestured from his aunt’s porch across the Fort Hill neighborhood, pointing out all the homes his childhood friends had moved away from.
More than a third of the houses on the east side of Fort Hill are empty, Middle Georgia’s worst vacancy rate in the 2010 census data. Across the street from where Sinclair stood was a friend’s house, marked with gang graffiti and two “For Sale By Owner” signs. Next to that was another house that’s been empty a decade, Sinclair said.
“People were pretty much raised up here together, and a lot of them moved away,” said Sinclair, a retiree who now lives in Monroe County. Much of Fort Hill already consists of empty housing lots, which wouldn’t count against the housing vacancy rate.
In Middle Georgia, nine of the 11 census block groups with vacancy rates greater than 30 percent were found in older, urban areas of Macon. The other two were in north Baldwin County along Lake Sinclair, where many people own vacation homes.
Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said the future of the city’s troubled neighborhoods could be determined by an urban redevelopment plan and other efforts to bring people from the suburbs into the city, where they’d have shorter commutes to “live, work and play.” The hardest hit areas, Fort Hill among them, need groups of investments, Reichert said.
“The more distressed the neighborhood, the more difficult it is to move people into it, so therefore you have to kind of concentrate your efforts,” Reichert said. “One of the things we’ve learned in the last 10 years is spot development scattered all over isn’t nearly as effective as concentrated redevelopment next to concentrated redevelopment that already exists.”
In eastern Fort Hill, some further redevelopment might come alongside the growing First Neighborhood, which places formerly homeless people recovering from mental illness in new homes. The River Edge Foundation, which is associated with River Edge Behavioral Health Center, built 18 units for $2.1 million and is planning another $1.1 million, 10-unit second phase. A third phase could include another dozen units for $1.5 million -- a total investment of about $4.7 million.
The development runs along Bowman Street just off Emery Highway. Some of the First Neighborhood homes feature well-groomed shrubs with white and pink flowers. Next to them is a house with an out-of-control lawn.
Shannon Harvey, the CEO of River Edge, said Fort Hill made sense because it’s close to River Edge’s treatment centers and other services, and it could be built with federal neighborhood stabilization funds. In an e-mail, Harvey said concentrated redevelopment could help Fort Hill. “This particular block is close enough to less challenged areas to be a sustainable investment,” Harvey wrote. “It is less likely that the new investments would be ‘overridden’ by surrounding challenge.”
Sinclair said he didn’t see many signs of fresh investments in Fort Hill.“Everything’s just going down, down, down,” he said.
Neighborhoods in decline
From her rented house along Williamson Road near Pio Nono Avenue, grandmother of three Carla Eure thinks about what kind of neighborhood she moved into. Rent is cheap, and she’s near a well-lit intersection with some neighbors who have been living there for years.
But she’s also living on one of Macon’s hardest-hit single blocks. In the 2010 census, just 16 of the block’s 86 housing units were reported to be occupied. Part of the reason is Glenwood Terrace Apartments, where a fence has been built across an entrance to some of the apartment buildings and grass grows through the parking lot. Many of the apartment buildings’ window panes are missing. Away from the apartments at a nearby house, a car is parked under a tarp.
It’s a night and day difference from the Pio Nono side of the block, where a Burger King and Snow’s Memorial Chapel boast immaculately groomed lawns.
Eure says she often hears police sirens as squad cars rush past her home. She hasn’t had crime problems, but the house shows signs of previous break-ins. She sees little hope for the neighborhood. “You know it’s going down and will just keep going down,” Eure said. “Anybody who’s lived here any length of time knows that.” Eure told how her husband, Kevin, came home from work one day, confused from a conversation he’d had with a co-worker about where he lived. Carla Eure set him straight: “Baby, we live in the ghetto.”
Looking forward
University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel said housing vacancy rates on their own aren’t necessarily terrible for neighborhoods. Vacant but maintained houses don’t cause many problems.
“If they didn’t have a yard service and the yard was overgrown with grass and bushes and trees and there was trash around and vandalism and the house wasn’t fixed -- it doesn’t take much of that before the neighborhood goes down fast,” Bachtel said. “It only takes one on a city block and the whole place starts to go downhill.”
Bachtel said the Lake Sinclair properties in Baldwin County may bring their own problems. In tough economic times, owners of second homes may begin renting them out for the money, and they could decline.
The dynamic is different in older areas in Macon, where urban areas tend to have generations of poor people with low education levels. “It’s not surprising that central city Macon has been hard hit, and we can predict that’s going to be the last to recover,” Bachtel said. And the areas have been changing.
Bruce Giroux, director of assessment and accountability for the Bibb County school system, said east Macon has been losing population for years. When he began teaching there in the late 1970s, the area was served by eight elementary schools. Now there are four, Giroux said, though the newer schools may be larger than the ones they replaced.
Reichert said the city hopes to begin redevelopment with help from opportunity and enterprise zones, which would bring employment and property tax credits. That would encourage nearby stores and other businesses.
“Neighborhoods don’t exist in a vacuum,” Reichert said. “They go hand in hand with commercial activity that’s around them. They can supplement the neighborhood in so many ways.”  The city also plans more police patrols and code enforcement to help clean up the blighted areas. Census figures show Macon is losing population, Bibb County is growing slowly and most surrounding counties are growing quickly. Reichert said the city offers a potential that suburbs cannot, from easy commutes to recreation like the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail. “We have the potential for such an exciting in-town existence,” he said.
On his aunt’s Fort Hill porch, Sinclair wasn’t quite sure. Most of his family and his childhood friends have left east Macon and aren’t likely to come back. Many of the remaining residents are aging. His childhood friend who became a medical doctor, he says, now lives in Texas.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.