UPDATE | Squatters breaking into vacant homes in Charleston
Squatters are a problem across Charleston, but it gets worse as the weather gets colder, Charleston Police said. That's something neighbors are dealing with in the city's Edgewood District.
"It's a squatters paradise, it's an empty home," Amanda Sproles said. "The utilities are in fact being paid, and no one is there."
Police have been called to a vacant house on the street where Sproles lives, Grace Avenue, five times during the past month because of squatters, according to Metro 911 records.
Sproles said that is just one problem, with vacant houses surrounding her family on all sides.
"We started noticing people there coming in and out making noise, breaking down doors, things like that," Sproles said. "People keep the grass mowed, the utilities are on, but obviously no one lives there."
No one has lived in the house for 10 years, the homeowner said. They haven't had problems until recently as people continue to break down the door, no matter how many times the locks are changed.
Sproles said her husband and neighbor now go around to the vacant houses each night and make sure they are secured. She is considering moving if the problem can't be solved.
Charleston's new Land Reuse Agency aims to solve this problem by taking vacant structures and holding the owners accountable.
"Any house that is a problem and is impacting a community is going to be dealt with," city attorney Kevin Baker said. "We are going to go for everything, but because we are and there are so many places around the town that have issues, it does take time."
Baker said the agency held its first official meeting in early November after being created during the summer. In the past two weeks, six houses have been demolished and three others have begin rehab.
"It does impact the entire neighborhood and not just in property value, but in morale as well," Baker said. "Part of the hope is that when we go in to get a house torn down or get a house in the state of renovation that could improve it substantially. It is not only going to improve the property values for that area."
That is something that Sproles is willing to help with. She would be interested in buying a vacant lot next to her to get rid of the houses that are bringing crime to her neighborhood.
The Land Reuse Agency is working to obtain warrants to enter vacant houses to see if they should be demolished or repaired, Baker said. That process includes contacting utility companies to get utilities turned off at vacant houses.
The city said 87 vacant houses have been demolished so far this year.
Simply tearing down abandoned homes is not the solution to take care of Charleston's empty house problem, Mayor Amy Goodwin said at a community meeting.
"That's why we put together a comprehensive plan, that it's not just focusing on tearing down homes, but rebuilding back communities," Goodwin said. "But most important, we are going to increase fines of people who have allowed homes and apartment complexes fall into disrepair."
The problem is apparent across the city. On Grace Avenue on the city's West Side, there are multiple empty houses that attract squatting, looting and more, neighbors said.
"I would like to see more neighborhood watches," resident Melissa ElMouatez said. "I would like to see them come and tear down these houses if they can or rehab them and make them halfway houses. I wouldn't have a problem with that."
"Just as long as they are not getting trashed," ElMouatez said. "The bigger problem is that so many of them still have the power on. So if you're squatting, why wouldn't you want to be in a house that has lights."
ElMouatez has only lived in Charleston for a year, but has seen the problem firsthand. Squatters have broken into the two abandoned homes across the street from her home, causing her to bolt the doors closed herself.
"These guys across from us have a baby," ElMouatez said about her neighbors. "We are so scared that one of those fires is going to happen, and we will lose our house or they will lost their house and their baby is in there. I just don't like the idea of that happening to anybody on this street. The neighbors we have are great, it's just that there are so many empty houses."
One of those neighbors is Darryl Vance who has lived on Grace Avenue for more than 25 years.
"I think some of the older people just moved on and the houses were not occupied later," Vance said. "The upkeep just went down you had street people who would go up and down the streets, which we didn't used to have. I don't think we saw those until four or five years ago."
Vance is working with his neighbors to come up with a solution to take care of the houses, even if that involves solving the problem himself.
"They're falling down but not quick enough," Vance said. "They need to be taken care of. Some of them, we have a couple people remodeling the houses which is great and some just need to be taken down."
Goodwin's plan will be formally announced in the coming weeks. It will look to shorten the process to take care of these abandoned houses across the city.
"We're going to shorten that amount of time," Goodwin said. "We don't have a year to wait for somebody to make these changes. When you give someone that amount of time, it falls into disrepair and then what happens is that it is so hard to fix. The problems are monumental. We need to take quick action and increase those fines. That's what's going to make a difference."
Charleston city leaders and the community gathered for a community meeting Thursday to put a spotlight on issues in North Charleston.
"This is exactly the setting and these are exactly the conversations we need to have," said Mayor Amy Goodwin, "If we want to move forward, we have to have more of these (meetings), not less."
One of the main concerns brought up was regarding abandoned homes in North Charleston.
"I have several concerns," said North Charleston resident Sue Loudermilk. "One of them is the houses that are empty. People go in them, and I'm sure do drugs or whatever, and some of them are set on fire."
Goodwin says she realizes this is a concern citywide and has finalized a plan with the other city officials to help put a stop to it
"It is incredibly unfair to our neighbors to say we're going to allow these homes to be fallen in disrepair and give them a year or so to do it," Goodwin said. "We can't wait a year."
Goodwin says they are going to increase fines significantly and limit the amount of time people have to take immediate action to repair their properties.
"I want to see it gone because, if it's not gone, we're still looking at an eye sore," said North Charleston resident Jack Young.
Young says the apartment building across from him has been boarded up since the end of Mayo 2018 and he's tired of looking at it.
"I'm seventy seven years old, I've lived here and raised a family here, I shouldn't have to put up with this."
Young says he hopes Mayor Goodwins plan works but for now, it's a waiting game.
Goodwin says the city will start working on her housing plan within the next six to eight weeks.