- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2016

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - Blighted properties still dot the city’s landscape, causing frustration for residents and potential public safety hazards.

But work is being done, city leaders said, and residents are helping push the process and focus efforts.

New ordinances that have the city list abandoned properties and possibly take them over are important tools in fighting the problem, Planning Director Elizabeth Terenik told The Press of Atlantic City (http://bit.ly/28WhVDj ).

But neighbors reporting what they see helps focus those efforts.

The city has 528 properties that have been deemed abandoned, with 51 added as the result of two residents walking through their neighborhood and recording eyesores.

“We didn’t knock on any doors or anything,” said Dennis Konzelman, president of the Westside Neighborhood Protective Association.

He and another man spent hours canvassing about 45 blocks in the city’s Westside, framed by Bacharach and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards toward the Penrose Canal that leads to the city’s Venice Park section.

They found about 190 properties believed to be abandoned, more than four homes per block. In at least one area, an entire eight-unit section of row homes is uninhabited, Konzelman said.

“This is an example of how important it is for civic engagement,” Terenik said. “It helps us do a better job, basically, when everyone gets involved.”

She and construction official Wallace Shields addressed a Westside neighborhood meeting last week after Konzelman brought up their concerns.

“For me, this is one of the No. 1 issues in the city,” Terenik said. “It’s going to take a little time, but I think we can get there.”

In December, City Council adopted an ordinance to generate a list of abandoned properties. A property is considered abandoned if no one has lived there in at least six months and it meets one of several other criteria, such as being behind in taxes for a quarter or not acting on a construction permit in six months.

The owner is then notified, and a hearing at City Hall would give the owner an opportunity to fight the abandoned designation.

If proven, the city can take ownership of the property through what’s known as spot blight eminent domain.

The city doesn’t want to take over homes, Terenik said, but in some cases it may be the best option to solve a problem property.

The city would then turn it over to a qualified developer, but the criteria for that are still being worked out.

The best option would be to have someone who will live on the property, giving them a vested interest in its upkeep.

On the Westside’s Huron Avenue, the plan is to bring in Dekbon Community Development Corp., which has built or rehabilitated about 30 homes in the city since 2006.

Dekbon Executive Director Kim White told neighbors the plan is two duplexes side by side. But a plan for four single-family homes is also being considered.

Konzelman questioned that location, saying it’s a small alley that looks out on some of the neighborhood’s worst abandoned properties.

But this would help fix up the neighborhood and bring needed taxes to the city, White said.

She also has a vested interest. White grew up in Pleasantville, and her children live in Atlantic City, where her grandchildren are growing up.

People who care about their neighborhood are needed, all seem to agree.

Timmy Robinson still cares about his Venice Park neighborhood, even though he was forced from his home on the 1600 block of Emerson Avenue by a fire in 2014.

Now living about a mile and a half away near the city’s troubled Carver Hall, he remains a member of Venice Park’s neighborhood watch.

“This is the best neighborhood in Atlantic City,” says Robinson as he walks down Ohio Avenue.

It’s quiet with little crime, separated from the rest of the city by two canals.

There aren’t the problems of vagrants and open-air drug use seen in other parts of the city, the 57-year-old veteran points out.

Along Penrose Avenue, he sparks up a conversation with Jannet Amaro, who has lived here since 1972.

Her well-kept two-story home is now up for sale because her husband needs to be on one floor.

She looks across the street with mild annoyance. The home, which she says belongs to a doctor, has been abandoned.

“I kept calling him, and he changed his number,” Amaro says with a laugh.

Robinson writes it on his list.

Behind the home is a detached garage, its door open and askew, visible from the street.

“That garage is nothing more than an enticement,” Amaro says of possible squatters taking up residence.

Homeless people looking for a place to find shelter and warmth is another risk with abandoned properties.

“That’s definitely a problem,” fire Chief Scott Evans says.

About a fifth of the city’s 124 suspicious fires in the past five years were in vacant buildings.

“We know blighted properties can have a negative effect that spreads,” Terenik said. “The city had to figure out how can we really, really attack this problem.”

She and Shields acknowledged the process can be slow, as out-of-town property owners ignore summonses to court.

“It is a process,” Terenik said. “But we’re moving in the right direction. We’re really trying to be aggressive because we know every day that goes by has a negative effect on your neighborhood.”

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Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com

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