The walls of three dilapidated houses in Mount Airy soon will be coming down — but without the blessing of one elected official in the city.
Commissioner Jon Cawley voted “No” in separate votes to demolish each structure during a meeting Thursday night, mainly citing cost concerns for his stance. Action on a fourth house also in violation of minimum housing codes was tabled due to ownership of the property recently changing hands, which will allow the new owners a chance to correct the situation.
The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners has now voted to have eight vacant houses in the city razed since 2012, when city officials decided to take a more aggressive approach with properties deemed unsafe as well as unsightly.
Those approved for demolition Thursday night are located at 145 Orchard St., 923 Carroll St. and 719 Worth St., all of which officially have been declared as unfit for human habitation. The houses are expected to be torn down sometime this fall.
And more could meet a similar fate.
“Right now, we have 12 minimum housing cases that are open,” said a city planner involved with the process, Andy Goodall, who reported that this included the three acted on Thursday night. “Several are being worked on by the owners, so they will most likely not come before the board.”
That could be the case with the fourth house that was on Thursday night’s agenda, located at 506 Kyle St. It had been owner-financed to someone who could not afford the structure, which led to the original owners taking it back. Since they live overseas, the board decided to delay a vote on that house’s demolition for 90 days to give them a sufficient opportunity to respond.
Unfair To Neighbors
Though the houses’ locations are different, they share common denominators of owners having received, and ignored, notices that the code violations needed to be corrected within a reasonable time, and years of back taxes owed on the properties in most cases.
The majority of commissioners believe that allowing such structures to exist also is a slap in the face to neighboring homeowners who endeavor to keep their properties neat.
Commissioner Dean Brown referred to the house at 145 Orchard St. as an example of this, saying the neighborhood it is located in is “real nice” as a whole.
“And then there’s this house here that’s about to fall in, it looks like,” Brown said of the problem structure.
“We’ve got to get some of these neighborhoods cleaned up,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley agreed in reference to the few dilapidated houses creating problems for others. “It’s bad for the entire neighborhood.”
Shirley Brinkley, another commissioner, said those who live near a chronically rundown house can be discouraged to the point of moving somewhere else. “It’s like a cancer,” Brinkley added. “It keeps on festering.”
“I wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood that has houses like this,” said Yokeley.
Brown also said the presence of such structures is detrimental to economic development, which he has been involved with for years. Along with being interested in available sites and the local labor force, industrial prospects often like to ride around town and “see how people live,” he said.
“And that’s what motivates me to vote for these kinds of things,” Brown said of the demolitions.
Meanwhile, the house on Carroll Street has been the site of a drug bust in recent years and harbored squatters, according to discussion at the meeting.
But Cawley said he had problems with the process, in casting the dissenting votes regarding the three houses. Commissioner Jim Armbrister did the same with the Orchard Street structure for a 3-2 decision overall, but did side with Brinkley, Brown and Yokeley in voting to raze the houses on Carroll and Worth streets.
The key issue with Cawley involves the expenditure posed to the city from the demolitions, and uncertainties about whether the municipality will be able to recoup those costs. The price tag for the three houses voted on Thursday night alone is $35,300.
Cawley said the city budgeted only $50,000 for that purpose for the entire 2014-2015 fiscal year, with more than 10 months left to go, and will either have to approve more or stall the stepped-up enforcement of housing codes.
“We don’t have to decide tonight, but it should be something ever-present before us,” he said of the budgetary considerations and the fact much of the funds allocated have now been spent for just three houses.
While foreclosing on the land left behind has been suggested as one way to recover demolition costs, Cawley pointed out that no firm plans have been forged to that effect for any of the homes approved for razing so far.
Until something occurs along those lines, Cawley said the commissioners are not doing right by the taxpayers and making bad business decisions.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell said foreclosure is one avenue for the municipality to gain control of the lots involved in Thursday’s actions, each valued in the $12,000 range. This could lead to the properties being sold to the highest bidder.
Yokeley said the sites also would be ideal for Habitat for Humanity houses, or new privately built homes.
“Hopefully, eventually the land is going to be used — now there’s no way.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.