They’re proud of the two-story house they bought to shelter their large family, Golden said, and they've been fixing up the west Anniston residence since they moved in.
But while their house sits on a neatly kept corner lot, the view from their porch isn’t as nice. Across one street, the grass and weeds grow waist-high and higher. Across the other street, a house with part of its roof caved in has sat empty for a year. Behind it a massive tree trunk toppled in the yard has sat so long it is nearly covered with vines.
The lot right next door is empty, but it is neatly cut only because her granddaughter cuts it.
“We’ve been having trouble with so many field rats and mice,” Golden said.
Their problem isn’t an isolated one. Nuisance properties and empty lots dot the city’s poorer neighborhoods, creating problems with pests, havens for illegal activities and making the neighborhoods appear less safe, the neighbors of the properties say.
It’s something many residents in that situation feel like they battle alone. So they complain to each other, to the city and then, if they’re able, they clean up the lots themselves.
But the problems are not just unkempt neighborhoods.
David Reed’s house on Dooley Avenue is surrounded by empty lots, some well-kept, some not.
“All my kids grew up here,” Reed said. “It was a beautiful neighborhood.”
He points to the lots around him, many with stairs rising from the sidewalk leading to nowhere. There used to be a house there. There used to be a house there. There used to be a house there, he repeats over and over.
“Most of the people are dead and gone,” Reed said of the residents of the former homes.
Reed would like to see the neighborhood come back, with pretty houses and lots of neighbors. But for now, there’s nowhere for them to live if they did return.
The city is working to change things.
City Manager Don Hoyt came to Anniston by way of Litchfield, Mich., where he watched the revival of Flint, Mich., after its economic tumble in the 1980s.
Michigan's Genessee County Land Bank, Hoyt thought, could be the model for a possible solution to Anniston’s nuisance property problem.
The land bank, created in Flint in 2004, acquires abandoned properties and prepares them for sale or development. The program helped to get such property into the hands of local governments, which in turn helped to make it available to responsible new owners, often the owners of property right next door.
Hoyt has been working with city staff and attorney Ed Isom to adapt the land bank idea to Alabama laws and implement it in Anniston.
He calls it a "mow-to-own" program, and it’s working not only in Flint, but also in Sandusky, Ohio, Hoyt said as he pulled a Wall Street Journal article about the Ohio program out of a thick binder of information about urban revitalization.
Through the urban homesteading program, interested residents will be able to apply to take over the maintenance of nuisance properties and after a certain amount of time — possibly three years — the city would transfer the deed for that property to them, Hoyt said.
But first the city has to gain control of the properties, Hoyt said.
The city has been caught in a cycle for generations, Hoyt said. People die and leave a house empty, or owners move out of town and abandon their property. The city maintains the lot as the home on it deteriorates and eventually the house is condemned and the city is forced to tear it down.Taxpayers are footing bills of tens of thousands of dollars each year.
In fiscal 2012, which will end Sept. 30, the city budgeted $85,000 to deal with nuisance lots and properties in the city. In fiscal 2013, which will start Oct. 1, Hoyt is proposing to budget $70,000.
“Because we are maintaining all of these lots, I mean, we are obligated to recover the cost as much as possible,” Hoyt said. “One of the things we can do is we can put liens for all of the work that we do on these pieces of property.”
So, he and staff started working soon after he arrived in Anniston to create the ordinances to make that possible. Some of those ordinances made it easier for the city to step in and maintain a lot that is owned by someone else. Others create the blueprint for placing the liens on the property.
In August, the fruits of that labor were 126 liens placed on the property taxes of properties the city has maintained this year. The liens range from just over $50 to nearly $800 and will be charged as part of the property tax bill, Hoyt said.
Once it is charged owners will either pay the bill and the city will be reimbursed for its maintenance or the property will go to a tax sale, Hoyt said. If someone buys it, the new owner will pay the lien and the city will be reimbursed.
If not, the property will go into the custody of the state and the liens will just multiply. In fact, many of the properties are already in the hands of the state.
“The lien will just be there until something happens to the lot,” Hoyt said.
That “something” might be that someone buys the property from the state, the owner redeems it or possibly the city could buy the property.
“We could acquire them from the state, or if we got ahead of the game we might even acquire them from the tax sale for little or no cost,” Hoyt said.
But that still leaves the city responsible for maintaining the property, he said.
Breaking the cycle
“To break this cycle, we have to try to get these pieces of property, one way or another, house or no house, into the hands of private, responsible owners,” Hoyt said.
That’s where the mow-to-own program takes over. Once the city takes ownership of the property, there is a three-year redemption period in which the owner can redeem the property by paying the liens and other costs incurred by the purchasers.
During that time, the property has to be maintained. Many residents are already taking care of lots near their homes just to protect their own homes, Hoyt said.
Under the mow-to-own program, neighbors could maintain the property for three years, relieving the city and taxpayers of the burden. Then, at the end of the three-year period, the city would transfer the property to them.
In addition, the city could donate the property to Habitat for Humanity or one of two Community Development Corporations in Calhoun County. Those groups specialize in getting low-income people into affordable, quality housing. Again, that would get the property back on the tax rolls, Hoyt said
Joseph Jankoski, executive director of Calhoun County Community Development Corp., agreed that blighted properties are a huge problem in Anniston. He said his organization is working to become a certified Housing Development Organization which could accept HUD funds for low-income housing projects.
But it is also using other means to redeem blighted properties. Right now, the organization is working with residents to create community gardens in a couple of different Anniston locations.
Issues still to be solved
But there is still a hurdle the city must cross before it can start implementing the program. Many of the nuisance properties are in areas that have experienced contamination with lead and other pollutants, Hoyt said. The contaminants are a remnant of Anniston’s industrial heyday, when pipe shops and foundries fueled the local economy.
Many of the properties have already been tested around the homes, Hoyt said. But once the house is removed, the property that was under the house has to be tested. Hoyt said he has sought advice from Bullock Environmental and was told something like 95 percent of the properties are most probably clean. But the city needs to make sure the properties are clean, Hoyt said.
The city will be doing a pilot test on a group of properties to determine how many of the properties are likely to be contaminated, Hoyt said.
“That’s the last hoop I have to jump through,” Hoyt said.
Until that’s completed, Hoyt won’t know exactly when the program will begin. But he notes the city already owns a property on Boynton Avenue that could be put into the program almost immediately once it is up and running.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.