City working to clean up, clear out substandard houses

Deidre Cruse

The City of Plaquemine removed 30 garbage bags of drug packaging paraphernalia from a condemned house on Government  Street before it was demolished, says City Inspector Brandon Million.

The demolition, part of Mayor Mark A. “Tony” Gulotta and the Board of Selectmen's push to clean up derelict housing, also slowed down drug trafficking in the neighborhood, the city inspector said.

The city enforces laws requiring housing to be maintained in a safe and clean condition. The ordinances are designed to protect public health and welfare, but also protect property values and, as with the Government Street house, provide social benefits to neighborhoods as well.

Mayor Gulotta said the house was one of 14 that had been demolished since he and the city council decided to make a major push to force private property owners to repair or demolish substandard houses.

It's a tough problem, he and Million said, because 90 percent of the properties involved are owned by heirs – sometimes second and third generations of heirs – and live out of town. The city has to identify all the property owners and notify them by registered mail, or hire an attorney to represent them, before demolishing a house.

“It's rare for us to hear a case that's a single owner,” Gulotta said. “That's the reason the process is so complicated.”

The problem is not unique to Plaquemine, they said, but common for older cities with older housing stock. Often, city officials would rather see the owners repair a property than force them to demolish a house – or, worse, spend $3,000 to $5,000 of city money for the demolition with no guarantee of repayment from the owners.

“The sad part of it is, there are a lot of perfectly good houses that just rot to the ground,” Gulotta said.

At every meeting, the city council takes up a list of houses, often giving property owners 30, 60 or 90 days to clean up property, repair it, or at least secure it.

In some cases, the city has been working for a decade to have a piece of property brought up to code, Gulotta said; the owner will keep a house up for four or five years, then relapse.

“We have six more that we're working right now that are certain to be demolished...but we have to go through the process,” the mayor said, and a list of 30 houses overall that need to be brought up to code. “Of the 30 we're working now, 20 can be fixed up or secured.”

Even when the houses are secured, they can be a problem, said Mellieon, who said he checks on the properties every day.

At a house on Allen Street that was boarded up, he said, drug dealers tore a floor out to gain entry.

“We're finding that more often than normal,” he said. “We board it up. They still find ways to go in.”

Gulotta said the city staff works closely with the Plaquemine Police while they process those properties.

“People think if it's a drug house, we can just tear it down,” the mayor said. “You still have to go through the process.”

As part of a public service, the city also is targeting houses with extraordinarily high utility bills, Gulotta said. The idea is to help residents lower their bills, often at rental properties or small family homes.

If there is a small shotgun house with a $400- to $500-a-month electricity bill, often there are holes in the wall or no insulation, he said.

Gulotta said he looks at the top 25 electrical users every month. Some are just big consumers, such as the owner of a large, older house in North Plaquemine with a $1,000-a-month bill. In another case where a bill went up, he said they found the owner had changed from a natural gas to an electrical heating unit.

“Induction heat is the worst you can have,” the mayor said. “It uses more electricity than any form of electricity you can have.”

The city cannot fix the problem, but can help residents mitigate it – such as covering broken windows – or talk to landlords about repairs.

Water leaks are the most common problems, Gulotta said. Although a few are hard to identify, of 111 recent water leak cases, 60 to 70 have been repaired, at savings to the residents.