- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2016

RUTLAND, Vt. (AP) - Three derelict houses in a city that came to symbolize the struggle against heroin in rural America are being turned into homes for families to help eliminate the scourge of drug dealing in the neighborhood, officials said Monday.

Local, state and federal officials said the houses, which had been used to traffic heroin and cocaine until just a few weeks ago, had been seized by the U.S. government. They will be turned over to a nonprofit group that will rehabilitate them and then sell them to people to live there, the officials said.

The hope is that the new owners will take pride in their homes and their neighborhood and that the area, just south of Rutland’s downtown, will become uncomfortable for drug dealers.

U.S. Attorney Eric Miller said the former owners were absentee landlords who agreed to turn over the houses.

“One of the reasons you do this is to send a multilayered message to the community,” Miller said during a news conference in front of one of the houses. “The first message is that everybody up here cares about the community and cares about making it safe and as drug-free as we are capable of making it.”

The city of Rutland, population about 16,500, gained a national reputation as one of the nation’s small communities that had been devastated by the impact of heroin and other drugs.

Several years ago, local officials began working to combat the drugs with a broad effort that included increased law enforcement, drug treatment programs, social services, new businesses and jobs.

Officials believe the most important part of that effort was to create a community determination to reduce drug use and resulting crime by restoring local pride.

Rutland Police Chief Brian Kilcullen said drug crime is continuing to decline based on a three-year average. Burglaries are down more than 20 percent while larcenies are also down.

“We are showing progress,” he said. “It’s not just a function of closing these houses down. It’s also a function of resources that are available in the community for those who are suffering from addiction.”

The area where the homes are located has been considered the epicenter of Rutland’s heroin crisis and the focus of recovery efforts. Just a block or so away is a new park, built on the site of a drug house that was torn down.

After the houses were seized, they were turned over to the city, which in turn transferred ownership to the group NeighborWorks of Western Vermont.

The group will fix them up them and sell them on condition they are maintained as owner-occupied homes. The process will probably take a year.

The neighbors are noticing and glad for the change.

“It’s so much quieter,” said Derrick Wood, 29, who for the last year has lived next to one of the seized houses and across the street from the other two.

“This is how it should be.”

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