Meridian Star

January 5, 2014

Hammon leading the charge against urban blight

By Terri Ferguson Smith /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Broken windows, litter-filled lawns, and crumbling houses are just some of the problems brought about by abandoned homes.

    At the least, vacant and abandoned homes are an eyesore: at worst they become a breeding ground for crime and they decrease property values in the area, according to reports such as "Vacant Properties, The True Cost to Communities."

    That report is often cited by one of Meridian's new City Council members, Randy Hammon, who was elected for his first term to represent Ward 5 in June. That election swept in three new council members, a new mayor and brought back two incumbent council members.

    In keeping with what he pledged during the campaign, Hammon has led the charge in the fight against urban blight.

    "It affects crime, fire, safety. It affects everything, but most of all it affects real estate values of people in their homes. You can't expect people to stay in an area with blight," Hammon said. "That's why we have so many for sale signs on homes now. "As I said when I was running, the area has expanded but lately it is probably from 10th Avenue to 50th Avenue; and from 5th Street to 40th Street. I know there are other areas, but it's a major part of the city.

    Abandoned homes that are beyond repair need to be torn down, and the property should be cleared, said Hammon, adding that property owners must be held responsible.

    Abandoned homes decrease property values, which cuts into tax revenues, Hammon said. Neighbors may be taking good care of their own property see their property values decline because of the surrounding decay. When they can sell, they do and they often move out of the city, he said.

    To do something about the problem, Hammon, along with Mayor Percy Bland, along with representatives from the city's Public Work's Department and Community Development Department, are developing a plan.

    "We're trying to get a five-year plan to stop the loss of population in the city. We lose 300, to 500 people a year," Hammon said. "Our population has gone down from about 45,000 to 41,000."

    It's time to put the brakes on, he said. The city committed $250,000 in its budget this year to demolishing abandoned homes in an effort to start cleaning up the areas for the sake of the homeowners who are still there.

    "Hopefully this will give them a reprieve so they will have some decent standard of living, so they can live in clean areas," Hammon said.

    According to the Vacant Properties report, a study in Austin, Texas found that "blocks with unsecured vacant building had 3.2 times as many drug calls to police; 1.8 times as many theft calls, and twice the number of violent calls as blocks without vacant buildings."

    More than 12,000 fires break out in vacant structures each year in the U.S., resulting in $73 million in property damages. Most of these are the result of arson, according to the report.

    To stabilize the city's tax base and improve the standard of living for all of its residents, Hammon said the city must take a three-pronged approach:

    A) A homeowner who is able to fix the property needs to do so before the city tells them to do so.

    B) If a homeowner has a hardship, there will be agencies to help.

    C) If the property owners don't do their due diligence, then the court system steps in.

    Hammon said the city also needs to hire an additional code enforcement officer, update codes and ordinances; and adopt the International Property Maintenance Codes.

    "We are going to go over all the ordinances one at a time. It may take a year, but we are going to look at all the ordinances," he said.

    And Meridian could learn something from the city of Hattiesburg, Hammon said, which has stabilized 36 neighborhoods in about 15 years. In the end, he said, more people will want to live in Meridian and those who do live here will have a better standard of living.

    "It's a thousand times a thousand. A thousand taxpayers times a thousand dollars in taxes is a million dollars. That's the goal. The goal is to quit losing $1 million every two to three years and start gaining $1 million every two to three years," Hammon said. "When you add population, you add taxes. People will move into the city into clean areas. They will not move into blighted areas. We have to make a decision. Can we afford, as a city, to keep losing population? Or do we want to stop and add population. That's our choice."