Some abandoned houses may not violate city codes

Autumn has cast yellow, red and amber hues across yards along Webb Boulevard in Havelock, and many residents are out raking to keep ahead of falling leaves.

But not at one home, where the grass is knee-to-waist high, beer bottles are strewn about the front yard, and a broken down GMC Jimmy with no license plate sits diagonally off by the corner of the house beside a pile of assorted debris.

Neighbors across the street say that the home has been vacant for about six months.

“We don’t know the lady. I know she didn’t keep it up,” said John Smith, who lives across the street.

A prominent view of the house is directly out his front door.

“The city got on her a couple of times. They have been by there a couple of times and she just lets it go,” said Smith. “There should be some kind of ordinance. They should fine her if she doesn’t keep it up. She should at least keep the grass cut and keep the hedges trimmed. I thought the city had an ordinance against that.”

Next to Smith is Amanda Schifano, who has lived in Havelock for 30 years. She also has a plain view of the high grass across the street.

“It’s kind of like a nuisance,” said Schifano. “When you live somewhere you want it to be nice. You expect picket fences.”

Vacant homes can be an eyesore in Havelock and could impact nearby property values, but sometimes those homes don’t violate city codes. But finding solutions to fill rental homes or improve their condition isn’t easy, city officials say, as some property owners can’t afford improvements because of a glut of available housing in the city and competition from government housing on base at Cherry Point.

“The guy next door, it took him quite a while to sell his house because of that house being the way it was, so trashy,” said Schifano.

Cases like the house on Webb Boulevard are not rare in some neighborhoods in Havelock. That is a problem, according to city officials.

“We’re letting our city get in a little worse shape than I would like,” said Commissioner Danny Walsh. “It makes a tremendous difference in the visual of Havelock.”

Havelock has minimum housing standards that go beyond how high the grass is in the yard. City Manager Frank Bottorff said sometimes houses that are the subject of complaints do meet city rules.

“We talked about a minimum housing code and some of the ordinances for whether it be junk cars or appearance and other things. Well, the reality is I think we do a lot in that area,” he said. “The reality, in my opinion, is not that we’re not aggressively pursuing, is that potentially the teeth isn’t in the ordinances to really do much about it. … Every time you talk about more regulation and what we are going to do, the reality is that there is a good side and a bad side.”

Bottorff said that when residents don’t take care of their properties to a minimum level, neighborhoods start going down.

Commissioner Peter Van Vliet wants to see some changes.

“So it’s not more regulation,” he said. “I just think it’s more appropriate language, because the fact is, if we have within our ordinances language that allows so much leeway that we can get to visually and aesthetically where we are now, then that was not the proper language to begin with nor are the methods of enforcement.

“Our ordinances lack the teeth, not that you want to go around being a bully or anything, but the fact is, you have to hold them to task, so look, this is wrong and you have to fix it in one week or two weeks, not six months, which is often time where we are now sending a letter, then a second letter.”

Havelock Mayor Will Lewis said city inspectors have to strike a balance.

“We have had situations where we have gone to houses and said this has to be fixed and they are like ‘If I could fix it I would. I can’t afford to do it right now. Give me six months and I will get around to it.’ Sometimes that’s worked. Sometimes six months later you’re right back knocking on the door,” Lewis said.

In the worst cases, abandoned buildings have been torn down after exhaustive condemnation proceedings. One such case involved an old seafood market that was torn down on U.S. 70. The property eventually became home to a new laundromat.

“We’ve done that on the highway, but we haven’t done it in the neighborhoods,” Walsh said.

According to Lewis, the city needs to bring in the planning department to see what positive steps can be undertaken to assist enforcement of the codes.

According to Walsh, a major problem in the city is that rentals in town are in competition with government subsidized housing through Atlantic Marine Corps Communities at Cherry Point.

“With government housing, the rent is cheap, the electric is paid, the grass mowing is paid, the paint is paid for, everything is free,” said Walsh. “In my opinion we have a major, major problem in Havelock. We have the government in the rental business and one individual in the rental business, and those two take away a lot of the options for renting homes in Havelock.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but I know what the question is. What do we do to combat these two problems and how do we combat these two problems?”

He said property owners with rental homes simply can’t compete with the government because they have to make enough money on rent to pay the mortgage on the property.

“I think the biggest thing that makes it below market value is that so many of your bills are included,” Lewis said of the base housing option. “I don’t know that there is a solution to it. We have had deeper conversations about how the federal government is really allowing AMCC to dilute the housing market nationally anywhere that they are by doing this. They basically can put subsidized housing on the market and make it compete with regular housing, and it hurts the community that has to support that. I think you are right. I don’t know if we have a solution but I think it is a valid concern.”