East Spencer works to rid the town of vacant homes

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 1, 2014

EAST SPENCER — Marcus Stalling has lived at his Shaver Street home for about 30 years, and in that time, he has had to look at an eyesore across the street.
Stalling recalled two mobile homes that were in disrepair.
“It needed repairs for about five to 10 years,” he said.
Before the mobile homes were torn down, Stalling said the site looked like a wild field.
Now, he noted, it looks nice.
The mobile homes were removed, the lot cleared and the grass cut.
After a March retreat, the town’s board of aldermen agreed that tearing down vacant and dilapidated houses was one of the top initiatives for the upcoming year.
The board completed an inventory of each vacant property and discovered there were 106 units that needed repairs or were beyond repair.
Stalling commended the town for its efforts to get rid of the neglected structures. He hopes the cleanup will raise property values in his neighborhood and others.
During the retreat, aldermen had a brainstorming session where they identified 38 initiatives the town would prioritize. The board members gave a nod to the initiatives they felt should be at the top of their list. The list was narrowed down to a set of goals the board would tackle in the upcoming year. Replacing the vacant and dilapidated housing throughout the town was one of the top five initiatives.
Board member Phronice Johnson said this has been an ongoing desire for at least the last 12 years. She had two neglected homes in her neighborhood at East Broad and Butler streets.
She said the board has been able to accomplish some of their goals through the efforts of Town Administrator Macon Sammons Jr., whom she called very “penny conscious.”
In the last two or three years, Sammons and the board have allocated money from each budget to cover the removal costs of the structures. So far, the town has been able to get rid of 48 units, some of which were removed by the property owners.
Mayor Barbara Mallett said the board hoped with the cleanup they could “change the appearance and change the mindset of the people.”
It has gone beyond just ridding the town of vacant structures.
Workers have also started painting fire hydrants, making repairs to Royal Giants Park and completing sidewalk projects throughout town.
Mallett said the priority list originated with a survey asking residents to tell them changes they’d like to see. The survey helped steer the board toward their priorities.
The changes will open the door for economic development, Mallett said.
F.E. Isenhour, who maintains the town’s code enforcement and public works department, said the removal of vacant homes will hopefully pave the way for new owners who will eventually make East Spencer their home.
“The board said we’ve got to take care of these homes to revitalize the town,” he said.
The town can remove four to five structures at the cost of $15,000 each budget year. Some of the smaller homes can be demolished for around $2,800 to $3,000.
“We’ve made a pretty good dent in it,” Isenhour said.
When the town conducted a study nearly three years ago, officials targeted 106 structures. Some were in mobile home parks, others were apartment buildings and at least three were commercial structures, he said.
“They needed to be either repaired or demolished,” Isenhour said.
Some homes have just been neglected by the owners and others have been burned and never repaired. In February, a house fire at 815 Cedar St. was believed to have been started by a vagrant.
There are a number of vacant homes on that street, including the home next to 815 Cedar St. and one across the street from it.
“Nobody wants to live beside a burned out structure or one that has weeds growing,” Isenhour said.
He admits there are likely some homes that can be fixed, but said “it doesn’t take long for a vacant house to deteriorate.”
Some owners have turned over their properties to the town. The town has taken care of the removal and will look to redevelop the property.
“We’ve had good cooperation from citizens,” Isenhour said.
One of the first priorities is to remove the structures located on South Long Street, which is one of the main entrances into East Spencer.
Essie Mae Fox lives just two houses away from one of those homes that the board agrees is at the top of their list. The home at the corner of South Long Street and West Cauble Place is across the street from Boral Brick. The home belongs to former mayor Reginald Massey.
It’s an example, Sammons said, of a property in disrepair. But the homeowner is working with the town to rectify the situation.
Sammons said initially Massey was looking to sell the property, but when that didn’t happen, he offered it to the East Spencer Fire Department to use as a controlled burn exercise.
Fox, who was raised in East Spencer, said she believes homes like Massey’s should’ve been torn down.
She said she hopes that once the lots are cleared the town will be able to put something else in that will “beautify the town.”
“I hope it brings a new image to the town. I hope they will be successful,” Fox said.
She would like to see a new home or a new business in the empty space.
Fox said the town has already made some repairs to Royal Giants Park and she’s grateful.
Another home on South Long Street is beside Southern City Tabernacle AME Zion Church. The church owns the boarded-up home, which has a roof that is near collapsing.
Isenhour said the town has given the church an estimate and is waiting to determine what the church plans to do.
He said some of the vacant structures are from absentee landlords, who have had liens placed on property.
“We’ll get a price for them and they pay it,” he said.
The town doesn’t just want to tear down the houses, but “bring back growth to those vacant lots,” Isenhour said.
“It’s a great opportunity anytime we can tear down some of these dilapidated houses to make the town beautiful. Some of them stick out like a sore thumb,” said Fire Chief Shawn McBride.
The fire department has already burned 13 mobile homes on Henderson Street and a house on Jackson Street.
“We have a young department, and some young people who need the experience,” McBride said.
Not only did the East Spencer Fire Department get to participate in the burn exercise, but neighboring departments — Spencer Fire, Salisbury Fire and Millers Ferry Fire — did too.
“We are working with the mayor to do our best to help the town as far as cleaning up the town,” he said.
McBride said there are some homes the department can’t burn, such as those that have asbestos, ones that are too close to neighboring structures and those that have already been burned.
The homes have to be checked for asbestos before the fire department can burn them, McBride said, but it can be costly to remove.
There are environmental issues with the N.C. Division of Air Quality that prevent the fire department from burning a structure that has already been burned.
The fire department can also not burn a previously demolished structure as part of a burning exercise.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.