Dryden proposes group to prevent blight in Hattiesburg

By HASKEL BURNS,

Although the City of Hattiesburg has made significant strides in addressing and removing unsafe and blighted properties throughout the city, Hattiesburg City Council Vice President Mary Dryden is looking for a way to prevent homes from ever getting to that state.

During a recent council work session, Dryden said she would like to see officials form partnerships with other organizations around the city – such as R3SM, Habitat for Humanity and the area’s educational institutions – to help take action against deterioration, decay and eventual demolition of houses that have not been maintained.

“You are likely to share my feelings of sadness when seeing a home that has plywood over the windows, plastic over holes in the roof, rotting fascia and other signs of damage or neglect,” said Dryden, who represents Ward 4. “Our Code Enforcement Division is working diligently to notify owners where work needs to be done on a structure, and sometimes legal measures are taken.

“In talking to one of the hard-working code enforcement officers, there are many homeowners who are – because of age, limited resources, or the lack of skills – unable to make the repairs. Our Community Development Block Grants are helping to fund large renovations, but these funds are not sufficient, and there is a waiting list. If you have attempted to find a contractor to make the repairs at your home, you have realized that we need more trained and skilled people to be able to do the work.”

To that end, Dryden is proposing the establishment of a team that would help homeowners with repairs – including training homeowners, community volunteers, family members or friends – through assisting the supervising contractor.

“Having homes deteriorate without intervention is creating another type of crisis: the loss of property which is often an architectural treasure that can never be replaced,” she said. “I’m proposing that our city partner with groups such as R3SM, Habitat for Humanity, USM and William Carey University, Pearl River Community College, and our high school students who are willing to provide service hours.

“The homeowners who are being assisted would also participate or provide someone to put in sweat equity, like the way Habitat for Humanity offers. Not only would property be saved and improved; newly-skilled individuals would be produced in the process.”

On Dryden’s invitation, Christy Arrazattee, who serves as the director of the Center for Community Engagement at the University of Southern Mississippi, informed council members of an upcoming event held by the center. “The Big Event,” which is scheduled for March 7, will function as a day of service for the entire university.

The day will begin with a kickoff at 8 a.m., after which students, faculty and staff will volunteer service hours at different sites throughout the city.

“I will tell you, these are not skilled laborers by any means,” Arrazattee said. “But I love the suggestion of equipping these volunteers with some knowledge so that they can become better at helping with home repairs.

“We have typically worked with nonprofits in the past, where we go to R3SM and we paint the blue volunteer house. But what we’ve found is that we’ve had the best experiences with homeowners and churches who can really share their stories with our students and allow them to come in and do some small repairs that they really, desperately need in order to get by.”

In order to accomplish that, Arrazattee and other center members are seeking the city’s help to identify homes, people or organizations that may qualify for help from the volunteers.

“Our students might not be able to do that much, but if there is a person who could be on site who could provide some guidance and kind of direct them like Habitat for Humanity or R3SM does, that could be really helpful,” Arrazattee said. “We do have a small budget for supplies, and so we would love to be able to partner with you all on that.”

Registration information for The Big Event can be found online at https://bit.ly/3bJcKFx or by calling Arrazattee’s office at (601) 266-6467.

Since 2017, the city has overseen the demolition of 75 properties throughout Hattiesburg. That number includes seven in 2017, 29 in 2018 and 39 in 2019.