Abandoned houses pose problems for area

abeam@thestate.com July 6, 2008 

Cpl. Glenn Gates had to step over splattered food and scattered clothing while searching a house at 3 a.m. one recent morning.

The home, abandoned on the end of Marsteller Street amid a jungle of dandelions and crushed cigarettes, has been empty for about a year.

North Columbia had more abandoned and boarded-up houses in 2007 than the rest of the city combined, according to a list of code violations.

It’s one of the bigger problems that get in the way of North Columbia’s prosperity.

Abandoned houses hurt property values and provide a place for criminal activity. With its low per-capita income — only $14,000 a year — North Columbia is more prone to abandoned homes because people are forced to leave after they can’t make mortgage or rent payments.

The house on Marsteller Street was cited by the city’s code enforcement team, which ordered its owner to board up the door and windows.

But the owner, Gwendolyn Pegues of Cheraw, never has seen the house. She got it a few years ago in what she says was a scam that left her with taxes and a mortgage she couldn’t pay.

“It’s something all abandoned homes have become — crack houses,” said Earl Bell, who lives next door to the house.

Pegues referred questions to a friend, Duncan Hanna, who said Pegues is very upset about the house but can’t sell it. “It’s hard to get somebody to buy it in that neighborhood,” Hanna said.

It is not against the law to have a vacant house. It is against the law to have a vacant house that is not properly secured, said Marc Mylott, zoning director for Columbia.

The city often requires property owners to board up houses that pose safety concerns for the community. If the owner doesn’t do it, the city will — but it will place a lien on the property for the cost of the work.

That’s what happened to the house at 1700 Mayer St., which has been vacant for three years.

Irma Fitzgerald, a Richland 1 substitute teacher, bought the house eight years ago. But she wasn’t prepared for the home improvement project it became. After five years, with a sagging roof and collapsing floors, she couldn’t take it anymore and moved out, leaving the house to whoever wanted it.

“I didn’t know I was buying something that wasn’t no good,” Fitzgerald said. “It made my head sick worrying about it.”

Her neighbor, Sharon Caughman, started seeing people come and go from the house’s back door late at night. With a high school daughter at home by herself some of the time, Caughman didn’t like her new neighbors.

The city came out and boarded up the house with blue spray-painted plywood. The city is scheduled to tear the house down in the coming months. If a house is structurally unsound, the city can require it to be demolished. If the owner doesn’t do it, the city will, placing a lien on the property for the cost of the demolition.

The city doesn’t have a demolition crew. Mylot works with the city’s street division. But that division has its own projects to keep up with, so houses only get torn down when there is time — or it rains.

Rain, Mylot said, is the perfect time to tear down a house because it limits the dust and spread of debris.

“We are their rainy-day clause,” Mylot said.

Reach Beam at (803) 771-8405.

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