They’re more than just an eyesore.
Gutted and boarded up, the weeds growing over, hundreds of vacant, abandoned and foreclosed properties across Gainesville and Hall County can reduce property values for homeowners, contribute to crime and increase public health risks, according to local government officials and business leaders.
And these kinds of properties are not limited to the poorest neighborhoods.
A few commercial buildings along Thompson Bridge Road, for example, have been vacant for years.
The same is true along the Browns Bridge Road retail corridor between John Morrow Parkway and McEver Road.
And dotted throughout are abandoned homes.
It’s difficult to ascertain just how many properties are vacant, abandoned or in foreclosure, officials said.
Gainesville, for example, keeps no list.
“Vacancy rates change so often,” Housing Manager Chris Davis said. “The city requires an occupancy permit but nothing when the buildings are vacated. It’s obvious to me it would be a daunting task to try and create or maintain something of this nature.”
Hall County, meanwhile, keeps a foreclosure and vacant property registry for unincorporated areas. There are currently 389 properties on the list, but officials say there are likely more.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 6,108 vacant rentals and homes in Hall in 2014, which is about 9 percent of all units.
Just 2,234 of these units are for rent, for sale, or rented and sold but not occupied. The remaining 3,874 are vacant and not on the market.
Frank Norton Jr., president and CEO of The Norton Agency real estate firm in Gainesville, said he believes vacant properties are relatively isolated.
“The problem is no different than some in Atlanta,” he said. “This county has done a great job in maintaining that.”
But in the vacant properties that do exist, Norton sees the evident problems.
For example, Norton said he knows of an abandoned home in a subdivision that has been used as a drug haven.
Hall County Commissioner Billy Powell, who works in real estate, said there is a neighborhood in his district where a half dozen or more mobile homes, located near pricey lakefront homes, are abandoned and crumbling.
“They are literally falling apart,” he said. “Neighbors are worried about rodent infestation.”
Moreover, the site of these mobile homes is now being used as a dumping ground, Powell said.
Another consequence from vacant and abandoned properties is lost tax revenue for local governments.
“It can also result in additional costs for the city if we have to maintain or demolish the properties,” Davis said.
Norton said it can be difficult to try to clean up these kinds of properties because many are encumbered by bank foreclosures.
“It’s a multi-level problem,” he said. “It is a legal mess. I have spent, in one case, a small fortune trying to clean up … but had to pass.”
Hall County officials have expanded the target area of a federally funded housing rehabilitation program, including in the northern and western parts of the county, to allow for blighted homes to be demolished and rebuilt.
The Neighborhood Stabilization Program also allows the county to establish a land bank to acquire, manage and rehabilitate such properties for sale or other use.
Since 2009, 62 foreclosed homes in Hall County have been purchased, renovated and sold through this program.
And Gainesville, through its own housing program, has acquired, renovated and sold several properties on Desota Street, for example.
“In addition we are building new homes on vacant lots to help increase values and further sustain declining areas,” Davis said.
Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin said vacant properties can have a trickle-down effect for neighboring homes and businesses by contributing to more crime.
“Whenever there’s a vacant property in town, and no one’s there to watch over it, it can contribute to what we call the ‘broken window theory,’” she said.
Norton said one of the biggest keys to addressing vacant and abandoned properties is the vigilance of neighbors.
By informing local authorities of these properties, some of the associated consequences can be properly addressed.
“That’s a good thing,” Norton said.