Fighting blight

Fighting blight

September 12th, 2010 by Todd South in News

Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press -- Sep 8, 2010 Peggy Kilpatrick talks about the new construction going on in the Buschtown neighborhood on Wednesday afternoon. The construction is due in large part to the Community Impact group and is focusing on building single-family homes. The area is also a designated Weed and Seed neighborhood.

Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

Driving through the Ridgedale community, Gary Ball eyes the houses surrounding his business. He can recite the histories of many of them, especially those falling apart.

"That gray house right there burned over a year and a half ago. And it's changed hands once it got out of environmental court," Ball said. "The guy supposedly got a building permit, but it'll be another year and a half before it gets fixed."

Ball heads the Ridgedale Neighborhood Association and has fought, along with other residents, to keep the area from sliding back into the blight and crime that property owners saw in the 1990s.

In November 1995, residents from such neighborhoods as Highland Park, Ridgedale, Avondale, East Lake and Glenwood went to the Chattanooga City Council, asking for help with dilapidated buildings, prostitutes and drug dealers in the communities, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press archives.

But 15 years later, Ball's neighborhood still is one of a handful in the city that rank at the top in both reported crimes and building code violations related to blighted properties.

A comparison of the figures from the recently released Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies report and from the Chattanooga Department of Neighborhood Services, which handles building code violations, show that blighted areas across Chattanooga often end up with more reported crimes.

Numbers from the Ochs report show that between 2005 and 2009, the Ridgedale/Oak Grove/Clifton Hills community ranked No. 1 in the rate of robberies and burglaries per 100,000 residents with 1,103 robberies and 3,751 burglaries. The neighborhood also ranked third in the rate of aggravated assaults at 1,822, the report shows.

Neighborhood residents also reported 638 city building code complaints for property conditions in 2009, records show.

For decades, many police departments have used the "broken window" theory of policing - minor vandalism and other acts that tear down the appearance of an area can attract or allow for crime.

Theresea Ivey, Ridgedale resident and neighborhood association member, sees the effects: overgrown yards, brush piles and the crunch of glass from broken windows on city sidewalks.

"It's one thing to have a broken house out in the country," Ivey said. "But if I have a house next to me and it's not being rented, it's not being occupied, it's not being maintained. [If] somebody breaks into it and they decide to hang out there, they decide to sell drugs there or have prostitutes there or burn it down, it can affect my house."

Connection to crime

After a series of shootings earlier this year, meetings were held in the neighborhoods where the crimes occurred, inviting residents to discuss crime and general conditions of their community. While the meetings would start with discussions on specific crimes, they inevitably would reach the problem of blight, how it affects crime and what communities can do to fight it.

Josh McManus, co-founder of the local group Stand, held some of those meetings. Stand is a nonprofit that surveyed more than 26,000 Chattanoogans on community concerns and solutions.

McManus said the group is trying to find solutions to problem properties outside of methods covered by city code. The solutions include perhaps changing the code, as well as getting local residents involved in the process.

"We have to look at: How widespread is the problem?" he said. "We need a group of people more inclined to work policy and law change, and we need other people who know how to roll up their sleeves and go to work in their neighborhood."

One of the major problems is that, while there is an array of tools to attack blight, there's no cure-all, officials said.

Some of the troubled areas have had investment by groups such as the federal Weed and Seed program, Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises and Community Impact.

In East Chattanooga, Westside and the M.L. King area, Weed and Seed programs have invested millions in programs designed to reduce crime and improve the quality of life. The money is not used to revitalize housing, but pays for educational and other activities designed to keep youth off the street and out of trouble.

Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises was one of several developers who, starting in 2000, revitalized the Alton Park neighborhood by building more than two dozen homes and the gated 70-unit Stone Ridge Apartments complex.

Community Impact has purchased and rebuilt or renovated 68 properties in five neighborhoods, including 27 in the Bushtown area.

Private money also has been used for revitalization. Created in 2003, MLK Tomorrow, a partnership between the Lyndhurst Foundation and Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, used more than $20 million to build about 130 homes and condos in the neighborhoods surrounding M.L. King Boulevard.

John Bridger, program director for Community Impact, works with neighborhood groups to build community pride, identify trouble areas and increase resident interaction.

One of the more visible features of the program is the buy-hold strategy in which the organization buys troubled or underused properties and builds housing in line with the existing neighborhood.

But that can be expensive, Bridger said. So, with an increase in foreclosures and a reduction in charitable donations for all nonprofits over the last three years, the group also targets less-expensive methods.

That method includes developing relationships with residents, which are crucial to begin turning a neighborhood around, he said. Early in the process, the group finds block leaders who will contact police to report problems and build up a network of involved residents to spot those problems.

"We ask residents to identify the 10 most-problem properties in the neighborhood and rank them," Bridger said. "We go after the most problematic just to show them an effect."

Raising voices

Bushtown resident Peggy Kilpatrick remembers open-air drug deals, prostitution and drug houses blanketing the area a dozen years ago.

"I could come home from church on Sunday and guys would be sitting out on crates, running up to cars trying to make a sale, that's just how bad it was," Kilpatrick said as she walked along North Holly Street, where new houses are replacing rundown ones or filling in vacant lots across the street from Orchard Knob Middle School.

Having lived in Bushtown for decades, Kilpatrick and her neighbors realized they needed to do something. Members of the neighborhood association started meeting, contacting police, calling the city building codes enforcement department and talking with landlords.

It wasn't easy.

At first landlords wouldn't return calls, but when neighbors saw a landlord at a house, fixing something or checking in, they would approach, invite the landlord to neighborhood meetings and explain the problems they'd seen.

Over time, more landlords began trusting the views of the residents, and now Kilpatrick and others send referrals to landlords looking for tenants and post vacancies in their churches looking for good renters.

The neighborhood still ranks fourth in the city in burglaries and drug offenses, fifth for vandalism and in the top 10 for robberies and assaults, according to the Ochs report. But Kilpatrick is convinced that new owner-occupied homes will recruit more residents who want to keep crime and blight down.

Police work

Chattanooga Police Lt. Brian Cotter takes a similar approach when tackling crime hotspots in his zone, which includes Bushtown.

"More often than not, the problems are abandoned duplexes where criminals, prostitutes and drug dealers are congregating," he said.

Some recent calls have involved "flophouses," as residents call them, single-family dwellings rented under the table to house scores of people. Those situations stress the property and begin to wear on neighboring homes, Cotter said.

Head of his zone for three years and with the Chattanooga Police Department for 24 years, Cotter had to win over the residents before his officers could make headway.

The first step, a crime tip hot line, received few calls, so Cotter began hitting the problem spots with all available resources, from building codes investigators to narcotics detectives.

By making arrests and showing progress on a few properties, he gained good will from residents, who began calling in more tips to the hot line.

"We'd stay on the same problem until we got it taken care of," he said. "And pretty soon I started getting more and more calls."

Using multiple city departments is part of a strategy for the Environmental Team - also known as E-Team - which began in the late 1990s as a way for building codes, fire, public works, police and other departments to coordinate better on properties with multiple problems, said Yusuf Hakeem, who was a city councilman when E-Team was created.

During the first few years, leaders met on a regular basis to discuss problem areas, he said. Now, the team relies on the city's codes enforcement officer, who might spot problems during an inspection that need other departments' attention, said police Sgt. Robert Simpson.

Simpson leads the department's civil enforcement unit, which follows up on narcotics arrests in rental properties and helps to remove drug offenders by working with landlords.

Often police work as security for the E-Team, and sometimes officers call in code violations on their own, Simpson said.

But currently there is no regular meeting among representatives of city departments to address individual problem properties.

Neighborhood service

In the middle of fixing blight stands the city's Neighborhood Services Department. Deputy Administrator Anthony Sammons said resolving city codes violations is often complex and the process must balance property rights and the condition of the community.

"It makes it hard because our average resident isn't aware of how difficult it is. We have to follow the guidelines," Sammons said.

His 13-officer staff already is swamped and it would be hard to do additional inspections, he said. Currently his office does "sweeps" through the city at least twice a month, allowing groups of codes enforcement officers to blanket previously identified areas to check on past violations and see if others need to be noted.

With fines for city code violations limited to $50, officials say there isn't a lot of incentive for property owners to fix problems.

And Chattanooga doesn't have a registry of landlords that would help codes officers contact property owners.

On the streets

CODES AND CRIMES

Neighborhood building codes violations for 2009-present with robbery numbers

East Chattanooga

* 1,123 codes violations

* 67 robberies 2009, 139 percent increase since 2005


Brainerd

* 650 codes violations

* 52 robberies 2009, 53 percent increase since 2005


East Brainerd

* 351 codes violations

* 16 robberies 2009, 60 percent increase since 2005


Eastdale

* 342 codes violations

* 38 robberies 2009, 46 percent increase since 2005

Source: Chattanooga Department of Neighborhood Services and the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies

Ball in Ridgedale and Kilpatrick in Bushtown described their neighborhoods as resembling "war zones" before revitalization work began years ago.

Kilpatrick said Bushtown still faces problems but has had a "rebirth" with the new construction and increased police coverage.

In Ridgedale, where dozens of abandoned cars once lined the streets, only a couple sit unattended for very long now, Ball said.

The owner of Tower Construction, Ball can point to at least eight properties that he bought just so he could tear down a dilapidated house.

He sees the eight lots as both buffers and investments. One day they'll be worth building on, but until then, as long as he keeps them clean, they protect the houses next door.

"I'd rather not have anything there than have one of those small, in-fill ... properties that are just going to be rented," he said as he drives by empty lots dotting the streets.

Ball and Ivey said the neighborhood was on the verge of real change before the economy slumped and housing sales plummeted.

Now, Ball said, their steady work keeps past gains from slipping away.

"And that's just the way it is," Ball said. "So you can get discouraged and say we're not going to do anything, or you can just plug on."

He isn't sure where the next step will come from. Possibly a victim of its own success, Ridgedale has had enough crime and blight to keep away homebuyers and investors but is not bad enough to attract money from federal, city or nonprofit groups, he said.

But with a business in the community that he hopes to hand off to his son, Ball said he isn't going anywhere. He's been working too hard to give up now.

Leaning against the wall of his cluttered conference room is a wooden plaque plastered with newspaper articles about Ridgedale.

The first Chattanooga Times headline reads: "Ridgedale Cleanup Aims at Crime." It is dated Dec. 15, 1997.

Contact Todd South at tsouth@times freepress.com or 423-757-6347.