Abandoned houses continue to be a major problem

Recently an all too familiar storyline of Camden ran again: “One dead, one hurt in Camden blaze at abandoned site.” An abandoned building used for drugs and prostitution catches fire and two individuals are trapped. One died and one is left in serious condition. Following the fire, residents and neighbors shared that this house had been a den for drug use, that it threatened the safety of the neighborhood, and that the city needed to board it up.  To complete the story, the city shared that there was no record of this property and that it lacked the resources to take care of all the abandoned buildings. Another casualty of a broken system.

We are exasperated with watching this story line play out day after day — one of us as a resident personally caught in the story line and the other as a youth minister at St. Anthony of Padua who helped organize the Ugliest House Campaign  –  and we both are engaged in organizing as Camden Churches Organized for People in order to make sense of a system that continues to produce victims.  The victims range from the homeless individual caught in a fire to the taxpaying homeowner who loses her house because the abandoned house connected to hers catches fire and falls, leaving a mass of rubble some 16 feet high that has sat for 10 months because the city does not have the equipment or resources to clean it up.

It is no surprise to anyone that Camden has a problem with abandoned properties. This was confirmed by the recent publications of Mayor’s Transition Team reports. Each of the four reports touched upon a specific issue area (economic development, public safety, family and youth resources, city infrastructure and greening); and the common denominator: abandoned properties.

As one of the author’s of this column, my story paints this picture perfectly. In June 2009, two abandoned houses a block from each other, used by a local drug network, were set fire to disrupt “business.” One of the houses was 859 28th Street which was connected to my house (No. 857). I had lived in my house for 30 years, had raised my children there and in 2008 as I approached my 60s had just finished paying off my mortgage; I was the first of my10 siblings to be a homeowner.

No. 859 had been abandoned since 2003. There had been a fire in the house before I made it a daily routine of calling the city to ask that the house be boarded-up and renovated for a family. Sadly that June morning, I was pulled out of her house by the Fire Department and told that both my house and No. 859 were going to collapse,

I had to stand on the road, with only the clothes on my back, and watch as a bulldozer finished the job started by the fire. Everything I had worked for was destroyed.

My house is a perfect example of what is happening in Camden. There is a home owner paying on average $3,000 annually in property taxes; however, after the fire I must pay only $900 annually since there is no longer a home on the lot. One of the driving forces in Camden’s work to rejuvenate itself is to rebuild the tax base. What about protecting the tax base it already has?

As Mayor Redd and the new team of administrative leaders begin to roll up their sleeves and get to work, we hope that this story that they consider the following two recommendations:

1. Immediately clean up rubble at 857 28th Street, using outside resources (county, non-profit or donation)

2. Mayor Redd and the new administration host a public round table with Code Enforcement, Public Works, Cam-Connect, CCDA, CCOP, and other key stakeholders like Rutgers, Rowan, and Camden Community College, to review the current Board-up/Clean-out/Demolition system for redundancies, duplications of service, and other dead ends to streamline the system and shorten the response time.

Emily Edwards is a lifelong Camden resident.

Mandi Aviles is youth director at St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Camden.

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