Colony Court is a quiet, well-kept cul-de-sac in Windsor Forest that at first glance doesn’t seem like the kind of place former Mayor Floyd Adams Jr. had in mind when he made his famous “southside ghetto” comment last fall. But residents here fear one abandoned home at the far end of the street is tearing down all that they have built up. And now that house and the city’s slow response to repeated complaints have prompted tough questions about the city’s commitment to cleaning up blight.
“This is a nice street with nice homes and people like living here, but this abandoned house is dragging everything down, and the city won’t do anything,” Windsor Forest Neighborhood Association President Jackie Haberman said. “This is how slums start – bit by bit, house by house.” No. 11 Colony Court is similar to many of the homes on the street – a one-story ranch built in 1970, with a front lawn shaded by a big live oak.
But the yard is trimmed this week only because city workers recently cut it. Often, grass grows thigh high. Squirrels scurry in and out of holes on the roof. The view through a side window reveals much worse: a collapsed ceiling with duct work and insulation hanging out, roaches scuttling everywhere, and big black splotches streaking up the walls.
Those spots are most likely stachybotrys, often called the “toxic mold” because of the serious health risks associated with inhaling its spores, a Chatham County Health Department official wrote in a report last week. No one should enter the building without wearing a mask, gloves and eye protection, environmental specialist Sharon Varn concluded.
That report prompted 6th District Alderman Tony Thomas to lash out at City Manager Michael Brown during last week’s council meeting for what he called negligence on the part of officials. “The neighbors have been battling this property for five-plus years and they’ve been ignored, and now we have a crisis,” Thomas said. “I’d like to know if we are really committed to improving neighborhoods when we are willing to allow them to get so out of hand. I’m very, very upset and embarrassed that the city has not done anything and allowed this property to get to this point.”
City records show Savannah property maintenance crews have cut the home’s lawn seven times since 1999, and boarded up broken windows in 2000. Officials have attempted to send bills and certified letters to property owner Florida Garcia’s last known address in Brooklyn, N.Y., but every one has been returned undelivered.
City Property Maintenance Director Trent Chavis says Garcia has been paying her taxes, but now owes the city $1,600 for the continuous property upkeep. And that’s not enough for officials to take strong legal action. While the city can seize a home if the owner fails to pay taxes, it has no such authority for a refusal to pay a fine.
Next week, City Council will hold a workshop to discuss ways of increasing the city’s power to take possession of properties like 11 Colony Court. Mayor Otis Johnson said an ordinance change is in the works, but changes to state law may be necessary. “We need the legal mechanism to be able to draw the line in the sand,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to get tough on this one.”
Last week, after the Department of Health report prompted serious scrutiny of the house, Chavis began calling Garcia’s mortgage company in a heightened effort to locate her. Messages left by the Morning News for Garcia at her last known phone number went unreturned this week. But Chavis said because the home is secure, and is in no immediate threat of collapsing, there is only so much the city can legally do.
“We are working diligently to remedy this, and if we weren’t limited by legal requirements then we would be better equipped to act,” Chavis said. “We’re trying to respond the best we can.”
Neighbors disagree. Yuki Cameron, who lives two doors down, recently saw her cat chase an opossum she said emerged from 11 Colony Court. Shirley Miller, who lives next door, said just last week another neighbor saw a rat scurrying around out front.
Miller and her husband have lived in their home for almost 40 years, love the neighborhood, and don’t want to move. But not long after Garcia left for good about 10 years ago, the property started falling apart, and the couple doesn’t know how much more they can take. Now they fear they wouldn’t be able to sell even if they had to. “Who would want to buy a house next to that?” Miller said. “It’s just deplorable. I wish they would tear it down and just start over again.”
Jo Ann Sepela, who lives on the other side of 11 Colony Court, said the stench of mold and mildew coming from it is almost unbearable. “We cannot even walk outside of our house without being bombarded with this smell,” she recently wrote to the city.
When confronted by Alderman Thomas about the situation last week, City Manager Brown was defensive, but admitted the city may have been too slow to act. He said that has now changed. “Maybe we haven’t done all that we need to,” he said. “But it’s not true that we have done nothing.”
But that was not enough to stop the development of the suspected stachybotrys. Varn claims that the mold does not pose a health risk to neighbors because even if its spores were to drift out of the house, they would quickly be diluted in the open air.
The mold is common in Savannah, normally developing in buildings that suffer chronic water damage. It produces potent mycotoxins, which can cause flu-like symptoms after just one heavy exposure and eventually lead to other pathological disorders. There have been widespread reports, including several in Savannah, of more serious health effects caused by long-term exposure, such as fatigue, respiratory ailments, neurological damage and bleeding lungs in infants.
The Centers for Disease Control, however, claims that the links between stachybotrys and such ailments inconclusive. Many believe that this is the government’s last ditch efforts to evade responsibility in clean-up of national military installations, monuments, public buildings, prisons, and schools. Internationally, there has been a great deal of research done establishing a clear link between carcinogens, neurological disorders, and even a vast array of autoimmune disease.
Occasionally, homes most be torn down when the toxic mold becomes extremely pervasive. Because inspectors have not been able to enter 11 Colony Court, they do not know if that will be necessary. Neighbors say it should never have gotten to this point in the first place. “All of this has been reported over and over again, yet it falls on deaf ears down at City Hall,” Sepela wrote. “It seems it is my responsibility to call the city to have the yard cut, to tell them that the roof is starting to cave in, (that) the stench of mold and mildew that is coming from this house is unbearable. If there was more public awareness on repair and maintenance issues, including cause and effect, it probably wouldn’t have happened. “I am at my wit’s end and have had enough of no one doing anything.”