The problem is easily seen.

The problem is easily seen.

Pine Bluff has the country’s fastest-shrinking population, a steady decline that has been blamed in large part on high unemployment and crime rates, education woes, low salaries and even political corruption. Empty, seemingly abandoned homes — many scarred by arson or other fires — are visible throughout the city.

The city’s zoning and inspection department is responsible for policing the dilapidated housing situation, and while officials there are devoted to following the law and doing what they can in helping the municipality to eliminate the hazardous eyesores, they are also sensitive to the human factor that must be respected in the process.

“We currently have over 400 condemned homes,” Zoning and Inspection Director Robert Tucker said Wednesday. “That’s a little higher than normal as we’ve consistently averaged between 350 and 400 in recent years.”

Homes determined by department personnel to be unfit for occupancy are listed and put before the city council, which can declare the residences as nuisance properties, thereby allowing owners only 30 days to demolish the structures and remove resulting debris from the site. The expense for such work can mount to several thousand dollars, Tucker said. The cost for an average home is about $3,000.

If the grace period expires, the city can contract for demolition services, for which the property owner will be billed for full, immediate payment. The owner will also be assessed a 10 percent administrative fee as well as costs for incidental expenses incurred by the city. The invoice is tagged onto the owners’ property tax, which can’t be paid until the city’s demolition bill is satisfied. If the matter isn’t resolved within three years, the property is forfeited to the state for public auction.

The council recently approved an amended ordinance providing for a penalty to abate recognized nuisance property. The measure originally would have allowed violators to be cited and established penalties of fines from $100 to $1,000 and incarceration in the Jefferson County Detention Center for 30 days to six months. Eventually, the measure was altered to read that offenders could simply be fined up to $1,000.

Chief Housing Inspector Mitzi Ruth said the department needs strong enforcement capabilities to contest non-responsive owners of multiple nuisance sites. Alderman Charles Boyd, who sponsored the ordinance and chairs the council’s planning and development committee, said he was seeking to utilize the original proposal against “loopholes” employed by those who have disregarded abatement orders.

Tucker said the city is sympathetic to disadvantaged property owners but tired of those who abuse the system at taxpayer expense.

“We know there’s a great deal of economic need within the community,” he said, “and many owners can’t afford to pay for demolition. We also know that there are a number of factors involved, such as heir properties, which no one wants to go after. We’re looking at patterns of owners of multiple properties.”

Tucker thinks that many citizens believe the nuisance property procedures somehow generate monies for the city.

“Most people don’t understand the government process,” he said. “It’s a long, detailed, strictly lined-out process, all of which is designed to protect property owners. The city doesn’t make money with condemnation.”

There are also added provisions that must be considered, Tucker said. Special rules can apply to historic properties or homes within designated historic districts. A case in point for the latter exists at a Poplar Street home that was destroyed in a double fatality fire last year. Only charred remains of the home exist, but Tucker said authorities are bound to make every effort to avoid demolition of properties in such locations.

Tucker said city leaders are understanding of his department’s plight.

“Our normal demolition budget is $90,000,” he said. “Last year, we got $150,000. Part of that increase came because we had some challenges with big buildings. We appreciate everything we get.”

In 2012, there were more than 200 demolitions of condemned homes here, including 126 abated by owners and 76 financed by the city.

Efforts are being made to help ease demolition costs by seeking volunteer workers through church networking and contracting for inmate labor with the Arkansas Department of Correction.