by Daniel Schere

Vandalism concerns one Winston-Salem realtor | @Daniel_Schere

Drive down McCreary Street in Winston-Salem’s Northeast Ward and you will see several empty plots of land, some of which are overgrown with Kudzu. Those are the properties where realtor Richard Miller once owned houses, only to have them burned down by vandals.

Miller, who is head of the firm Miller & Associates on Trade Street, has had vandals do everything to his properties located all around the city, from breaking out windows to stealing air conditioners to illegal dumping. Altogether, the vandalism costs him $20,000 a year–roughly two-thirds of his total costs.

“How is a neighborhood going to survive if people are going around stripping the houses down?” he said. “The owner can’t afford to go back constantly and keep putting things up.”

According to the Winston-Salem Police Department’s website, the most common places for metal thefts to occur are buildings under construction, vacant businesses and houses, power substations and cell phone towers. It states that vandalism affects property owners the most, costing them in the thousands while the criminals only make profits in the hundreds on the spare parts.

“I don’t know how they could make anything off of stealing a whole air conditioning system,” Miller said while adding that some units are worth $4,000. “My thought is somebody stole it to sell it to somebody who needs an air conditioner. Most of the time they break in and steal the copper out of it.”

Thefts of air conditioners and copper have been on the rise for the last seven years. According to statistics from the police department there were 409 copper thefts in 2011, which is up from just 85 in 2007. So far this year there have been 102 thefts between January 1 and July 31. Officer Edward King attributes trends in copper thefts to changes in the price per pound of copper. He said there is more incentive to steal when the price is higher.

“People are willing to take the risk because they’ll make a little more,” he said.

Data from the department shows that the value has risen since 2002 from about 75 cents per pound to $4.50 per pound in February 2011.

King added that many criminals have been deterred by the fact that stealing non-ferrous metals from air conditioners is now classified as a felony. Non-ferrous metals are the most common items stolen and include copper, aluminum and lead.

Thefts of entire air conditioning units have been on the decline for the last three years with 281 occurring in 2011, and only 100 occurring last year. King thinks the main reason for this is the recent decision by the North Carolina General Assembly to require those who are selling items to scrap yards to have HVAC certification.

“You just can’t take it as an individual and try to make a few dollars off of it,” he said.

King added that properties under construction are often vulnerable at night when they are deserted.

Miller has been in business for 30 years but said the vandalism has picked up in the last six years, and in that time he has had eight water heaters stolen. He attributes much of the theft to the recession and desperate measures some people have gone to for making money.

“People like to say if you rent your property then you don’t have that,” he said. “Well you know, if the economy’s bad and people can’t afford it and there aren’t that many customers out there then what do you do? You can’t just invent a customer base.”

Miller said after a property has been vandalized, he will fix up the outside of the house to make it look presentable but not repair the inside until the property is rented.

“If we fix it now, someone will just break in and deface it,” he said. “If they break in and steal a hot water heater, what’s going to be next?” He said the group that sprayed graffiti on one of his properties was linked to gang activity, something Miller says has driven away builders.

“Talk to the builders, they will not build houses in these neighborhoods,” he said. “And Habitat (for Humanity), they only want to build in a whole section. I’ve been trying to get Habitat to do rehab houses which they’re now starting to do after I got all over them about it.”

It is too costly for Miller to hire inspectors to check on his properties, so during the summer the person who mows his lawns does inspections, and in the winter he does inspections himself. He has called the police numerous times but rarely does anymore due to the volume of incidents. He feels reporting every act of vandalism would be a waste of police resources.

Miller addressed the Winston-Salem city council at their meeting on July 21, in which he explained that many issues with properties are not the fault of the owner. He said this misconception is most common when it comes to illegal dumping.

“My problem with (illegal dumping) is that the property owners gets blamed for it,” he said. “At one time if they wrote you up three times in a year they could cite you as a chronic violator, and we pointed out that it’s not us who should be responsible for it, but we need to be continuously notified since this is an illegal act. But we’re still having to clean it up.”

Miller said despite the economic downturn his business is surviving, but without the vandalism his properties would likely be worth between 30 and 35 percent more. He said the best defense against what has been happening to him is a better system of neighborhood policing. Many neighbors are afraid to speak out due to fear of retribution from the criminals who may live next door.

“If the neighbors would help us out we’d have a whole lot less problems,” he said. !