Stuck in the weeds: Fixing blight not always simple

Published 6:31 am Friday, July 22, 2016

Patricia Spears describes living in her home as like being in a prison.

She said she doesn’t venture outside much anymore and she can’t park in her carport, as a thick patch of cane and weeds have grown up along one side. She believes people could be hiding in the thick foliage.

So, she parks on the street.

“Even during the day it sometimes spooks me to park under the carport. I look around at my surroundings and then come on in,” she said.

Spears has lived at 810 Ave. B since 1987 and since she moved there with her husband, the next-door house at 806 Ave. B has been empty.

Today, the little house has no front porch. Its windows are broken. A faded notice of condemnation is nailed to the front door.

“This building is deemed unfit for human occupancy,” the notice says.

But that doesn’t mean it’s empty.

The backdoor is unlocked, and Spears said she hears noises in the house some nights.

“A lot of vagrants live there or they stay at the ballpark,” she said. “And when it rains they come here. I can see or hear movement at night. I am always afraid when they burn candles over there it will catch fire. Fire freaks me out — that’s how I lost my daughter, in a fire.”

Her daughter died in 2004. Her husband died seven years ago, and Spears has had a heart attack. Even if she wanted to, Spears said she can’t push a lawnmower over the yard at 806.

“I can’t maintain it anymore,” she said. “I have to hire someone to mow my own yard; it’s too hard for me. I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I just need help. I’d like to see it a little bit safer for the neighbors and me,” she said.

But it’s not clear who — if anyone — can provide the help.

James Hall, the director of public works for Bogalusa said he’s well familiar with the old house. He agrees the house is in bad shape, but tearing it down would be costly because there is asbestos in the home. According to Hall, the cost to tear down the home would be somewhere around $12,000, and even if the city could tear down the house and put the cost on the house’s property tax bill, he doubts the city would ever get reimbursed for it.

“Why are they going to pay me if it’s just a vacant lot there,” he said. “And they sure ain’t gonna sell it for $12,000, because it’s only worth $3,000.”

That’s a matter of debate. In fact, the owner isn’t going to sell it for $12,000 because he claims it’s worth at least $16,000 as is.

Owners still want to salvage house

Jack Borches owns the old home. Borches lives several miles off Mississippi Highway 26, just across the Pearl River. Borches said he bought the home 14 years ago with the intent of refurbishing it and moving there.

But, then Katrina came and damaged part of the home. Then, two years ago, he fell. Borches will be 84 in September, and these days he can barely walk. Also, he said he doesn’t have the money to fix the house. Borches said his Social Security check comes to $1,018 per month, and that’s not enough to live on and rebuild a home.

“It’s hard to do anything without money,” he said.

Borches admitted his home in Mississippi “is in bad shape” and needs its own repairs. However, he’s also not ready to give up on the home on Avenue B. Borches said he’s invested $16,000 in that home, and he wants it back.

“There’s nothing wrong with the house,” he said. “I put on new siding on there.”

Borches also said his family repaired the roof after Katrina. However, he admitted he can’t cut the grass. He said he had someone cutting it, but they stopped and his family’s lawnmower is broken.

Robert Holland, Borches’ son-in-law, added that he installed metal doors on the home to keep out vagrants. He said he didn’t know the backdoor was unlocked.

“If the door is opened, it’s been recently opened,” he said.

Holland repeated the hard-luck story.

“We put all new siding on the house that we made ourselves,” he said. Then Hurricane Katrina came along. Then the housing market crashed. It’s been one thing after another. And two years ago, he fell and it’s been back and forth to the doctor.”

Katy Canavan, Borches’ granddaughter, pointed out that they had the home entirely rewired, but all the wiring was then stolen.

“They went in there and they stripped all the copper out and they went to knocking out the windows and punching out the walls,” she said. “My grandfather’s trying to do everything he can.”

Holland blamed “dope thieves” for stealing the wiring.

“All we’ve done is gone in there and worked and worked,” Canavan said. “But they’ll just go in there and strip everything for crack rock.”

Holland, Canavan and Borches said they were not victims of a random copper thief. Holland said it was a nephew who stole the wiring, but the fact that the nephew is out and about is not the fault of the family.

According to Holland, his nephew was in jail in Washington Parish, but they let him out.

“Why…did they let him out,” Holland said. “Why don’t they ship (him) to Poplarville? They got warrants on him over here.”

Poplarville is the county seat of Pearl River County, and Holland said his nephew is wanted for grand larceny and commercial building burglary.

They also blame the Avenue B neighbors. Holland said the windows wouldn’t be broken and the wiring wouldn’t be stripped if the neighbors kept an eye out on the neighborhood.

“The people in the neighborhood, if they see stuff going on, why haven’t they picked up the phone and called 911,” Holland said.

Although, in the next breath, he said the police are no help.

“Poor neighborhoods don’t get the law enforcement,” he said. “It’s the suburbs that get law enforcement.”

Root of the   problem — no money to fix

Holland claims the city is harassing his family by selectively enforcing building codes.

“The city acts like they want to condemn the house,” Holland said. “But there are houses that are in worse condition than that.”

Borches agrees.

“If you’re going to enforce a city code against us, you better enforce it against everyone,” he said.

Meanwhile, Spears just hopes someone will cut the grass and weeds back and maybe secure the home. Spears is not originally from Bogalusa, but she’s been here 27 years. Because of the house at 806 Ave. B, she said she’s thinking about moving. Or getting a gun.

“I don’t own a gun but I’ve been wanting to get one,” she said.

Meanwhile, some city leaders seem receptive to the idea of amending the city code to allow city workers to clean up tall grass and weeds on private property and then bill the owners. The idea was floated at a recent town hall meeting and city council members Gloria Kates and Doug Ritche both seemed receptive, though Hall points out even a change in the ordinance might not do any good.

“Even if the ordinance will be in place, I won’t have enough people to do that,” he said.

Besides, a year of mowing the property would add an extra $1,000 to the annual property tax bill, and at some point Hall said the owner would likely stop paying taxes and the entire property would become adjudicated and fall into city hands.

“It’s a three-year process for it to be adjudicated,” he said. “You’ve got to mow it three or four times a year, that’s $1,000 a year added to the property, and I don’t have the people to stop and do this.”

And, by the end of the whole adjudication process, Hall said the house would be too expensive to even sell.

“Then you got a piece of property that’s not worth $2,000 and you have $3,000 to $4,000 worth of liens on it,” Hall said.

In some ways, Borches and the city are in the same situation. Both sides would be happier if the house were whole, neat and tidy. But, as it is, neither side has the money to make that happen.

“It’s been like that for a long time, but it’s one of these houses you can’t do nothing with,” Hall said.