COLUMBIA — As members of Columbia’s Neighborhood Response Team walked up Banks Avenue on a weekly surveying expedition Wednesday morning, they were startled by shouts from a concerned resident. While the team had already surveyed the property, on the walk back they noticed a large branch had fallen into Mary Ann Kennedy’s front yard from a neighbor’s tree.
“My grandbabies play in the yard all the time,” Kennedy said. “Thank God there was nobody out there.”
The NRT, which began in 2000, works to address problems such as damaged trees, peeling paint, unlicensed vehicles and other city code violations in an effort to improve the quality of central Columbia’s neighborhoods.
The team takes weekly walks through areas in the program’s boundaries, checking for violations from the street. They look at every property in their jurisdiction at least once a year.
NRT members include a representative from the Department of Environmental Health, a Columbia Police Department officer, the city’s Senior Building Inspector Brenda Canaday and Neighborhood Response Specialist Bill Cantin.
Consequences for code violations on inspected properties range from courtesy letters encouraging residents to fix problems to formal notices that could result in legal consequences.
The program prioritizes vacant residences when it comes to taking action.
“We try to take care of them immediately,” Cantin said.
Last year, 19 vacant structures were demolished at NRT’s recommendation.
Enforcement for Environmental Health ordinances is somewhat stricter, especially since issues such as standing water can exacerbate problems such as West Nile virus.
“Cellophane wrapping from a carton of cigarettes can hold enough standing water for mosquitoes to run through an entire life cycle,” NRT member David Crooks said. “This time of year is perfect for that.”
When the team began eight years ago, 50 percent of the 604 surveyed properties in the Douglass and Ridgeway neighborhoods had at least one code violation. Last year’s survey found 84 percent of the 2,046 NRT-surveyed properties to be compliant with the city code.
The NRT will reach full capacity this year with its expansion to include Benton-Stephens and East Campus neighborhoods. This will increase the NRT’s load to 3,535 properties.
Kip Kendrick of Benton-Stephens is optimistic about the team’s expansion into his neighborhood. As the area is the heart of Columbia and energy prices continue to rise, Kendrick sees the incentive for property face-lifts.
“The NRT will bring more eyes to the area, which is always a good thing,” Kendrick said.
However, some residents within the program’s original boundaries believe the team already oversees more properties than its current funding can handle.
Mike Martin, a resident of North-Central who has been buying and renovating property for the past seven years, said he thinks the NRT needs more support.
“North-Central has seen quite a bit of improvement, but the Neighborhood Response Team is basically a one-man show,” said Martin. “Bill Cantin gets help from other departments, but those departments have other responsibilities.”
The NRT also receives some financial aid from the federal Community Development Block Grant and HOME Programs; it uses this money for grants to eligible property-owners.
However, if a homeowner needs money for something like the removal of a dead tree, he or she may have more trouble finding the funding.
“I know for a lot of folks it can be a hardship on funds,” Crooks said in reference to some fallen branches in a resident’s backyard.
Other NRT-area residents, like Amir Ziv, want to see the team take greater measures in addressing code violators.
“I’d like to see a little more teeth behind some of these letters that get sent out,” said Ziv.
The North-Central Columbia Neighborhood Association has invited Cantin to a public code enforcement meeting June 10 at the Daniel Boone Regional Library to discuss what’s next for the NRT.
“Dilapidated property is the single largest problem in the central city,” Martin said. “The NRT is the most effective tool we can use to solve the problem.”