DECATUR - It's a problem many residents in Decatur know all too well: Homes abandoned, condemned, overgrown, vandalized. The solution, they agree, is to demolish them, but some feel that may present a whole different set of long-term problems.
The reasons neighbors want to be rid of the gap-toothed house next door are numerous and understandable. Some abandoned homes become targets of arson, as did the empty house in the 1600 block of East North Street that burned down in October, sending the family next door fleeing into the night.
Others simply sit, sometimes for years, as the city's legal team follows the letter of the law in trying to locate their owners before eventually securing permission from a court to have the structures destroyed.
Once a property is razed and becomes a vacant lot, a new set of problems emerges for those living near it, particularly for those adjacent to lots that nobody will buy, even at bargain basement prices at auction. Purchasing the vacant properties sometimes saddles owners with unforeseen problems.
For retirees Roger Shaw Sr. and his wife, Sandra, the past 44 years in their house in the 800 block of West Marietta Street have seen houses in their neighborhood condemned and torn down. Two properties adjacent to their home were torn down, one about 20 years ago and another some six years ago, Roger Shaw said. Seeing no prospective buyers and dissatisfied with watching them go to seed and serve as a target for dumpers and vandals, the Shaws bought the two lots for about $1,600.
Soon, they found the taxes were being assessed at a value far more than either lot was worth and more than they could reasonably pay. Working through Decatur Township Assessor Tom Greanias, they were able to rectify the problem, but Sandra Shaw said any homeowners looking to do the same thing would do well to be cautious.
"You don't know what the price (of taxes) is going to be," she said. "We didn't know it went up until we heard about it."
Roger Shaw said the factors that lead others to abandon their homes are simple, if inexorable.
"I think they have decent people who bought these homes, who got them (at) too high (a price), and they lose their jobs and just can't maintain it," he said. "Some of them need to do too much to bring them up to city code, and people just walk away from them."
Greanias was able, with help from a computer system, to create a digital map highlighting the properties that have been demolished or condemned in Decatur over the past 10 years.
He stressed it was not perfect. In the area bounded by Pershing Road to the north, Lake Shore Drive to the south, Oakland and Fairview to the west and 19th Street to the east, the blue-shaded property lots were sprinkled everywhere. Each one signified a residence or commercial property condemned or knocked down.
"The inner city is decaying, and I don't know if the solution is just tearing things down," Greanias said.
The overall effect leads to increases in the tax burden on the responsible homeowners who remain, Greanias said. The vacant lots surrounding properties in turn diminish the property's value.
"The more demolitions the city does or forces to be done, the more we're going to have vacated land out there, and the greater the problem is going to become," Greanias said.
According to data from the Decatur City Clerk's Office, about 880 residential and commercial properties have been condemned or met the wrecking ball in Decatur since 2000. Each case is unique, but what has led to each property being abandoned often sounds the same: The owners, many times faced with costs that outweighed their ability to pay, walked away. In many cases, according to the city's legal team, the owners may even have died without resolving their business, and any next of kin are completely unaware of any responsibility and unreachable.
Some homes and apartment buildings such as the one at 1450 E. William St., which was torn down earlier this month, are owned by out-of-state businesses and often bought sight unseen. The building at 1450 E. William was owned by a Nebraska-based company, according to city records.
Don Roderick, a contractor often hired by the city to put an end to condemned homes, lamented the loss of so much property for the city, even as he acknowledged it is steady work for his business.
"It's a terrible thing that's happening to Decatur," Roderick said. "As you take all these buildings down, you've got all these vacant lots that have to be mowed."
The effect on the property tax situation for the area is troubling, Greanias said. As more homes become vacant and are demolished, the tax burden falls on fewer and fewer property owners.
Greanias said combating the trend of condemnation and demolition will require cooperation between units of government and providing creative incentives that will draw potential homebuyers.
"It's not one group that can put together a plan; it needs to be intergovernmental, plus other groups who have an interest in the economic development of Decatur," Greanias said.