To say that vacant homes in Fairmount Heights have been a problem in recent years would be an understatement, said Sylvia Syphax, a resident and business owner in the town.
“We had a problem with prostitutes around the block a couple years ago, and they just loved [the vacant houses],” Syphax said, adding that the houses are “eyesores, they’re fire hazards, and they’re just a haven for rodents.”
Town officials said they are working on a new initiative to crack down on more than 40 properties in disrepair that are chronically vacant. They said cleaning up these houses will improve the quality of life for the town’s estimated 1,500 residents and return some properties to its tax rolls.
Doris Sarumi, Fairmount Heights town manager, said she decided to focus on the vacant home problem shortly after being hired in February. Sarumi said she and town code enforcement officer Sylvester Vaughns sent letters to owners of vacant properties in some form of disrepair requiring them to register the properties with the town and to set up a plan to bring them into compliance.
“They need to respond and register, for a fee, and then we can do one-on-one intervention with owners and look for workable solutions,” she said. “... If they don’t, we’ll take them into court. If it’s condemnable, we’ll move to get it condemned and razed.”
Sarumi said the fees are $100 per year for vacant single-family homes, and $200 per year for vacant residences with four or more units and commercial properties. Although she said the town is sympathetic to owners struggling to maintain their vacant properties, she said they have a responsibility to their neighbors who also suffer from the blight and depressed property values.
John Morris, Fairmount Heights acting police chief, said that while he does not have any statistics for calls related to vacant properties, he described it as an ongoing problem.
“It’s really just a constant thing,” Morris said. “We’re trying. We always board up the houses, but then people eventually tear the boards down.”
Although some of the vacant properties are foreclosures, Sarumi said many are still owned by individuals.
Sarumi said getting properties back into good repair and ready for occupants also is critical for the town’s finances.
“A lot of these properties aren’t on the tax rolls, and are only contributing to blight in the town,” she said of some properties where the owners have not been paying taxes. Sarumi said she plans to do a study on exactly how much money the town stands to gain from bringing the properties into compliance.
Mayor Lillie Thompson-Martin said the vacant home problem was difficult to tackle prior to Sarumi’s hiring because the town didn’t have the staffing to focus on it. Prior to hiring Vaughns early last year, she said the code enforcement position had been vacant for more than a year, and the town manager position sat vacant for six months before Sarumi was selected.
“We had a lot of turnover and long periods of vacancies,” she said. “With our budget constraints, it’s hard to get an appropriate individual at the right price. With so many nagging issues [in code enforcement], it was hard to be able to concentrate on this problem.”
Syphax said she applauds the new initiative, and said she hopes it prompts some action at some of the long-disused homes.
“It’s really needed,” she said. “I know there are houses that have been vacant for 30 or 40 years. ... No matter what you do, if a house is not going to be put back into use, it just needs to be demolished.”