Working 4 You: Vacant, Still Standing

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - A lot of the complaints we hear from people in the neighborhoods largely affected by crime involve the deterioration and lack of investment. 

They commonly point to vacant, dilapidated houses as a symbol of that. 

The City of Little Rock maintains a list of condemned and vacant houses.

We looked into how long some of them have been on the city’s list of problem properties and what the process is for getting the issue addressed.

When Roger Mardis steps out his front door, he sees the slow crumbling in his community.

"Pretty long time, over five years for sure just like that - abandoned," he says. 

A walk around the block is blighted by boarded up houses long left empty.

"Like they say an eyesore to the community with us trying to do things better for the community - something can and should be done," Mardis adds.

In a three-block radius we counted at least eight properties deemed vacant and unfit for human habitation.

"If it's unsafe - we're going to tear it down, fix it up. Only two options - tear it down or fix it up," he continues.

"Let's see what's in here," says Terry Hall, Little Rock Code Enforcement Supervisor, as he peers into a property.

He says the city has to go through several steps before it can take action on a property. The first is actually citing it as unsafe.

"Ceiling collapsing in," he points out.

Holes in roofs, rotting floors and faltering foundations. Just a few factors that result in a red tag.

"That means that the house cannot be occupied until it has been brought up to where it is considered the new code for residential property," Hall says.

Then, the owner has to be located, contacted and allowed time to make repairs. So, even though the windows are boarded up and it's been tagged with an unsafe placard, though they're practically even crumbling down around you, city officials say they can't just come in and claim these properties because they still belong to a private property owner."

Even if the owner does nothing, Hall says the city can't demolish every dilapidated home because of budgetary constraints. Plus, they would rather salvage structures that can be saved.

"The more houses you can keep in the city, the better it is. To get them repaired and make a neighborhood look better is the main focus anyway," Hall says.

At this point, there are 500 properties deemed vacant and unsafe across the city. The vast majority are in Wards 1 and 2, south of I-630, which includes Roger's neighborhood.

About 90 homes are recorded as "works in progress" or "in court" but 400 of the 500 appear to have no assigned status by the city.

Some have been on the list for nearly a quarter century. Another 20 percent for over a decade. The remaining 75 percent, or 360 properties, made the list between 2008 and this year. In 2016 alone, 109 homes were added but many became rundown even before being tagged.

"We do have houses over the years like some of them that have been there for a while - where they will become in that condition where now they do need to be submitted for demolition," continues Hall.

He says the city monitors the houses monthly. As they come closer to a total loss, they're submitted to be condemned.

Condemnation has to go through its own process of hearings and then approval by the board before demolition. Often, owners are given years to get things done.

"Some of the properties will end up in court. Some of them have out of state owners that it takes you a long time to contact them and try to get anything done," Hall says.

"Year and a half ago they came and put some windows in this house," Mardis explains.

Roger works in the city neighborhood programs, cutting grass on abandoned lots, so he knows there's work being done.

"With a hold on these houses can't no one do anything," he says.

Roger believes, and police data shows, abandoned houses attract crime, so he reckons rapair could also build respect.

"People don't just feel like - you want to come in your neighborhood and tear up, rob this person," he continues.

To Roger, taking big steps to hold absent owners accountable could foster hope.

"If you want to keep these houses, they can be fixed up and done right," he says. "And make Little Rock city proud again."

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