UPDATE | Rebuilding communites rather than just tearing down homes in Charleston

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- UPDATE 7/19/19 @ 6:40 p.m.
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.

Abandoned house on Grace Avenue on the West Side of Charleston. Neighbors have been trying to get it torn down for more than a year to stop squatters from living in it.

"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.