Drug related crimes have escalated across Vermont – mostly because of a surge in heroin and prescription drug abuse.
While addiction affects people from all economic and social levels, it’s the poorer neighborhoods that often pay the highest price with vandalism, increased crime and lower property values.
For Rutland, it’s the northwest part of the city that’s struggling most with drug-related crime.
But police, city officials and local nonprofits hope a new effort to renovate vacant properties will help revitalize that neighborhood.
Karen Sarnowski stands in front of her apartment on Baxter Street in northwest Rutland. The corner store next door? She says it’s been robbed 6 or 7 times in the past few years and don’t get her started on the boarded-up house across the street.
"That is a vacant house and it’s been vacant probably for five years," she says. "And they haven’t done a thing with it. It’s very frustrating," says Sarnowski, "’cuz it looks horrible. We’ve got people going over breaking windows, people going in there. I’ve called the cops but they come down and search but there’s nothing they can do."
Rutland City’s new Police Chief James Baker says "It’s pretty telling why Rutland is in this situation with an overstock of housing that allows people to find safe havens to deal drugs." He calls it a big piece of what needs to be taken care of in the city.
"Just as important," says the police chief, "is us working with the neighbors to create environments in those neighborhoods where they feel safe and can come out on a summer night and reclaim their block. And that’s a huge part of what we’re focusing on."
But many in the neighborhood say they’ve been frustrated by what they see as a lackluster response from the police.
Karen Sarnowski says she’s more optimistic now that Chief Baker’s in charge. But pointing across the street,she says the problems are still there.
It’s a problem Nate Elwert sees first hand. Two years ago, the city of Rutland hired him to be a part time code enforcement officer because the number of abandoned properties has skyrocketed since the housing bust.
Two days a week, he inspects vacant properties to make sure lawns are mowed, trash isn’t piling up and no one’s breaking in. "When I come out to do inspections," says Elwert, "I make sure the doors are secured, any windows on the first floor are closed."
Elwert walks around a boarded-up home on Cleveland Avenue – one of 20 vacant houses in the troubled northwest neighborhood.
"As you can tell," he says, "the front door’s been boarded up. Then I just do a general walk around, to make sure all the doors are locked." As Elwert checks the side door it opens easily. "And that one’s not," he says.
Inside there are mattresses and blankets on the floor. A container of baby wipes and other items are on a table.
"Somebody jimmied the lock so you can’t lock it," says Elwert. "There’s a first floor window open there. I actually believe this is the property that was in the paper several months ago where people broke in and had people tied up. I believe this is the house where that took place."
But here’s the thing – Elwert doesn’t call the police.
"I don’t, no," he says. "There’s nobody here. All there is is an unlocked door. It’s not posted no trespassing or anything like that."
But if Elwert doesn’t go in and search the premises, how does he know there’s nobody is in the house?
"As far as I could tell no one was in there," he says. I don’t go in. As soon as I get back, I’ll call Jimmy and take the necessary steps to get the house boarded up and secured."
Jimmy is Jim Simonds, Rutland City’s Building Inspector and Zoning Commissioner.
Simonds says vacant properties like that do attract crime and he knows it’s frustrating for the neighbors. But he says there’s a lengthy three-step process he has to go through to notify landlords, and many don’t respond. He says the city can’t tear a house down unless there’s an immediate danger of it collapsing.
Legally, he says, there’s not much he can do. "I think when we first started noticing, we made calls to the police," says Simonds. "But then it would be so rampant. I can only go so far," he says, "and the police can only go so far and I know my limits."
That’s the kind of answer that drives Richard Sarnowski crazy. "Us as neighbors, we’re here to help them in any way we can," he says. But on the flip side of the coin, when we give them information and they tell us there’s nothing they can do about it because they didn’t see the actual act go down. That’s a problem. So as a neighbor you can only do so much patrolling on your own if they’re not willing to back you up."
Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras says part of the problem is the city’s building inspection department is overwhelmed. And he says they don’t have the legal tools to deal with vacant property owners.
That’s something Brennan Duffy, who recently took over the city’s Redevelopment Authority, is trying to fix. He says he’s been working with city officials to draft new ordinances that will penalize landlords whose properties remain empty and unkempt while providing tax stabilization benefits for people who buy vacant properties and fix them up.
He says his office is allocating $30,000 to jump start rehabilitation projects in northwest Rutland and he says the city is expected to add even more funds.
"The idea behind the revitalization of this neighborhood is really to improve a number of things," says Duffy. "One would be the housing condition and the physical structures that are there. And another is really the revitalization of the neighborhood itself."
He says that will boost property values, encourage new homeowners to move in and improve the quality of life in the neighborhood. But he says the city can’t do it alone. So Rutland is reaching out to potential partners like Habitat for Humanity, Stafford Technical Center’s home building program and Neighborworks of Western Vermont, a nonprofit that promotes affordable homeownership.
"To look at a map and see what’s owner-occupied and what’s tenant-occupied, says Neighborworks’ Mary Cohen, "you can see the differences in the two, especially in that neighborhood."
Neighborworks’ Executive Director Ludy Biddle nods. "And you can see that this street needs this kind of work and that street needs that kind of work. And now," says Biddle, "there are people lined up to do that kind of work. This is what’s happening. This is what’s making the difference."
Biddle says Neighborworks can offer low interest revolving loans, construction management, weatherization upgrades and homebuyer education services.
She says her staff is also trying to learn from other cities that have tackled similar problems. "We’re taking staff and funders and board members on a field trip to Rochester, New York," says Biddle, "where they’ve had a lot of success making improvements of the very sort we want to make here."
But money is still a major obstacle. Ludy Biddle says Neighborworks is building a capital pool to purchase and rehab homes in the neighborhood. But she admits it won’t be a quick fix and progress will happen brick by brick, house by house.
Back on Baxter Avenue, Karen Sarnowski says neighbors are trying to do their part. We’ve kind of been working all together in this little square right here, and we all watch out for each other," she says. "We know that lately a lot of break-ins have been going on in cars and so we let each other know what’s going on."
Sarnowski says she grew up in the neighborhood and she, her husband and her kids want to stay – if they can.