As winter turns to spring, the grass starts to grow on the lawns of Johnston County, and as it does, the vacant houses reveal themselves. With no one to trim the yards, casual blight and neglected houses become something larger, an issue threatening neighborhoods and reflecting on the failings of town codes.
Responding to a call from a constituent, Smithfield Councilman Marlon Lee drove street after street in his East Smithfield district looking for cases of neglect and homes where vacancy was giving way to vagrancy. Blight wasn’t hard for him to find. He said that in a three- to five-mile radius, he found 75 uninhabitable homes.
“I got a call complaining about residents across the street, no one living there; someone had taken a couch and put it on the property, metal was stripped from the house,” Lee said, adding that he drove most streets in the Pine Acres, Woodall Heights and Belmont neighborhoods. “What I found were 75 houses that were uninhabitable; you can’t live in it. Some of them are boarded up. There are actually some houses where people are living in that they actually shouldn’t be living in.”
Lee said these neighborhoods and these issues have been brought before to the town’s code enforcer but that little seemed to be done. Town Manager Michael Scott said the job is a part-time position and had been recently filled by a retired police officer. Lee noted that many of the homes in these parts of town are rental properties and that the town should hold landowners to higher standards.
“I think this is a real issue,” Lee said. “Some of these houses, the windows are open; two houses didn’t have a front door. So there’s no telling who could go in and out. This could be part of community policing. Anything could go on.”
Previously when Lee said he brought a couple of darkened street lamps to the town’s attention, he learned there were actually six out. The dark coupled with neglect could make a cosmetic issue a matter of crime and safety, Lee said.
“Any time you’ve got house where people aren’t there, it’s dark, you know that’s a safety thing right there,” Lee said. “It’s about to get warm now. The grass is going to start going. Pretty much like last summer, where we had to call Lenny (Branch) and his (public works) crew. The grass was probably four or five feet tall. Snakes, everything in there. We need a plan of action.”
Town officials acknowledged the problem but pointed to perhaps a bigger one – that they don’t believe current town codes can do much to curb Smithfield’s blight.
“It is a problem; it’s a significant problem,” Scott said. “It didn’t get there overnight. It’s not going to get gone overnight either. It’s very likely we may nee to add some tools to our city ordinances to better deal with some of these issues.”
Scott said the town can deal with tall grass and vermin and some nuisance issues, but rental properties degrading into blight might be beyond the town’s authority.
“As far as residential rental-property inspections, there’s not a lot of meat in the city ordinance that we have to go out and deal with these things,” Scott said. “The rental properties that sit there and are not safe for people to live in, yet we have people living in them. It becomes very difficult to deal with that. That’s something that is important. I don’t want anyone to think it’s not, because I really believe it is.
“We will deal with this with the tools that we have, but I want to tell everyone, we’re probably going to have to add some tools if we really want to be effective,” Scott said.
Smithfield planning director Paul Embler agreed. He said the town needs to beef up its code if indeed Smithfield wants to turn its rental community around.
“We do have a minimum housing code, but the word is minimum,” Embler said. “It doesn’t have a lot of the teeth the manager is speaking to. We’ve got to put some teeth in the ordinance.”
A lot of communities complain about their transient residents, those living in rental houses or apartments and the sometimes reduced attentiveness from landlords. Last year Clayton held a town meeting in one of its high rental communities, the neighborhood around Cooper Elementary School, and many residents echoed the same complaints heard in Smithfield.
Five years ago Clayton condemned the iconic Red and White grocery store on O’Neil and Front streets, taking control of the derelict building on the grounds it had become a public safety hazard. It would later tear it down and put a lien on the property owner.
Drew Jackson; 919-603-4943; jdrewjackson