STARKVILLE — Mikel Franklin spent much of his childhood in the house on North Long Street that will likely be demolished soon.
Franklin’s mother died in 2000, and two of his brothers each lived in the house until about five years ago. Pieces of the roof have fallen off, windows are broken and the yard is overgrown.
A vacant residence tends to fall apart and become uninhabitable, to the point that the city takes over and declares it “a menace to public health, safety and welfare.” In many cases, the abandoned house belonged to a deceased parent whose grown children are now responsible for it, and sometimes they do not agree on what to do with it.
Such is the case for Franklin and his five siblings, though Franklin has been paying the building’s taxes on his own for about seven years. Two of his siblings do not think the building should be demolished, he said, but he and the three others are thinking about having it done anyway.
“The thing about a house is once nobody stays in it, it starts going down either way,” Franklin said.
The Starkville Board of Aldermen voted Tuesday to call for public hearings regarding four dilapidated buildings, including the house on Long Street. It also held a hearing and voted to condemn building 19 at the Brookville Gardens Apartments subsidized housing complex.
Another one of the four buildings is the house on McKinley Street that Henrietta Dixon’s mother and uncle owned before their deaths. The house has been vacant for at least eight years, and she and her siblings and cousins are in the same situation as Franklin and his siblings.
“If someone wants to take it over and burn it down, that’s fine with me,” Dixon said.
The deeds for both houses are still under the deceased parents’ names, according to documents from Oktibbeha County Chancery Court.
Short-staffing causing backlog
A dilapidated building most often comes to the city’s attention through a report from a neighbor, and the code enforcement division tries to notify the owners in case they want to fix up the house. If the owner does not respond in 10 days, the building division will check if the house is “livable and sustainable,” Community Development Director Sungman Kim said.
If not, and if the owner still does not respond, the building goes on the aldermen’s agenda to call for a public hearing and a vote on whether to condemn it. Once the board approves, the city has a year to get rid of the building.
Sixteen buildings have been considered for votes to condemn in about four years, nine from 2016 to 2019 and seven this year alone, according to aldermen agenda documents on the city website. The lack of steady staffing in the code enforcement division is “the major first reason” for the spike in cases this year, Kim said.
Jeff Lyles, the city’s sole code enforcement officer, was on medical leave for about a month after having surgery earlier this year. Amy Counterman, director of Keep Starkville Beautiful, temporarily filled in for him. Both declined to comment on the division’s workload.
“There was a disconnection, so when Jeff came back, he had to go through what had been done and kind of comb through (cases) if there is something we need to actually clean up, and he got those four structures,” Kim said.
The board of aldermen voted in June 2018 to condemn a building on Apple Street, but it was not destroyed before the one-year deadline, so the board made the same vote on Sept. 3 of this year.
Code enforcement goes beyond just identifying abandoned buildings, Spruill said.
“We get the most calls about things like overgrown yards and trash being left out on days that are not trash days,” she said. “(The goal for) your neighborhoods and around the city in general is to keep it clean and keep it a place that people are proud of.”
The city will hire an additional code enforcement officer, funded by a property tax millage increase the board of aldermen approved in September. The board voted Tuesday to start advertising for the job opening.
Eleven of the 16 dilapidated buildings in the past three years have been in wards 6 and 7. Alderman Henry Vaughn of Ward 7 and Vice Mayor and Alderman Roy A. Perkins of Ward 6 both did not attend the September meeting in which the board approved the tax increase. Neither responded to requests for comment by press time.
The demolition process
The city hires a contractor to demolish condemned buildings that are made of brick, and the Starkville Fire Department burns down the ones made of wood, Kim said. All demolition costs are charged to the property owners through a tax lien.
Burning condemned buildings down provides training opportunities for the firefighters and saves the city between $1,000 and $2,500 per building, Chief Charles Yarbrough said. The only cost to the house’s owner in that case is about $300 to have the building checked for asbestos before the burning.
The department is looking forward to the potential training to come with the four houses up for a vote to condemn, and the understaffed code enforcement division has left those buildings “pushed to the side,” Yarbrough said.
Dixon said she will sell the lot after the house on McKinley Street is burned down. Fixing the house and selling it after it was vacated would have been too expensive, she said.
Mildred Stallings grew up next door to Franklin and his siblings, and she currently lives there as a caregiver for her elderly mother. The abandoned house next door has “been kind of hard on us over here,” she said, and when her grandchildren visit, she makes sure they do not wander in the direction of the house.
She and her mother have guests every holiday season that always ask if they can do something about the house, she said.
“My mom always says, ‘You know what, we’re just trying to give the family the opportunity to do something about it,’ but they always complain,” Stallings said. “It really just needs torn down.”