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December 25, 2008 -- Post-Standard (NY)

101 and Losing Her Home

by Sue Weibezahl Porter, The Post-Standard

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


Mamie Singleton, 101, and her granddaughter, Mary Reaves, 56, are being evicted from their home of 45 years.

They received a notice last week from Syracuse police Chief Gary Miguel, giving them five days to leave their two-family house at 114 Baker Ave. They were supposed to move out by Christmas Eve.

The property is being closed for six months under the city's nuisance abatement law because of drug arrests at the house, Miguel said.

The women's lawyer, Randi Bianco, appealed for an emergency stay to halt the proceedings until after the holidays and Onondaga County Judge Anthony Aloi granted the request Tuesday, moving back the case until Jan. 5.

"I certainly wasn't going to take the chance that someone her age would be put out on the street at Christmas," Aloi said. "It just didn't set well with me. I'd rather play Santa Claus than Scrooge."

The looming prospect of having to leave their home has put a damper on the family's holidays.

"I've been frantic and it's just so upsetting," Reaves said. "My grandmother is a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen. She says, 'This is my house and I'm not leaving.' And she shouldn't have to."

They don't know where they will go or how they will pay for the security deposit and rent on an apartment for six months while still paying taxes, insurance and utilities on the Baker Avenue property, Reaves said. The house is valued at $48,300 for tax purposes.

Typically, Christmas involves dozens of relatives, a huge meal and lots of presents. Reaves has canceled the holiday this year.

"I just can't believe this is going on," Mary Reaves said. "I haven't been able to sleep since we got this notice. We don't have any other place to go. Everyone comes to us when they need a helping hand or a place to stay for a couple days. Our hearts are heavy over this."

They may have gotten a reprieve, but Miguel said they will be evicted because they have failed to properly address criminal activity on their property and did not show up at an April hearing on the matter.

Under the city's nuisance abatement law, the police department has the right to close properties that have been the scene of a crime more than three times in two years, Lt. Joe Cecile said.

Three arrests at the Baker Avenue house since 2006 have included weapons and drug charges, and that activity is disrupting the neighborhood, said Phil Prehn, of Syracuse United Neighbors, a community agency pushing for the eviction.

A property that starts getting a reputation for criminal activity tends to attract more crime "and it's like a virus," Prehn said. "Unchecked, it destroys a lot of things."

Prehn said the closure of this house and another at 227-229 Merriman Ave. help send a message to homeowners: They need to control their property.

"The city doesn't seize the property," he said. "They're just saying that we're not going to let this operation continue at this place. We are trying to disrupt the drug business there."

Reaves and Singleton received a letter in March about the April hearing. They didn't respond, Cecile said.

Since the hearing, officers have been to the house two more times to let the residents know that the process was continuing, Cecile said.

A backlog in the city's corporation counsel office led to the delay in seeking the court order, said lawyer Joseph Bergh, who prepared the paperwork.

"I agree this is not the perfect situation and it should have been done a lot sooner," he said. "The timing was not intended to coincide with Christmas and we didn't do this with the intention of raining on anyone's holiday."

All three arrests involved Kareem Brown, a nephew who periodically stayed at the house, Bianco said.

Two of the arrests involved search warrants and police found marijuana and cocaine, as well as drug paraphernalia leading them to believe Brown was dealing.

Brown, who served prison time for the drug convictions, no longer is allowed there and the owners also have put up a "No Trespassing" sign, which they believed "abated the nuisance," Bianco said. The last arrest there was in January.

The initial notice for the hearing is to "try to initiate conversation between the property owner and the police," Miguel said. "The property owner has a responsibility to terminate the activity" and work with police to keep it from returning, he said.

"The strength of nuisance abatement is not in the closure, but in the dialogue," said Cecile, who has overseen the program for almost eight years. "It's working through it together, but that hasn't happened in this case. They have never made any type of contact with us."

In 2008, the city held nuisance abatement hearings on 32 properties. All were commercial except the properties on Merriman and Baker, Cecile said.

"It's very rare that we even have a hearing on an owner-occupied residence, and it's even more rare that we close it," he said. The last time one was closed was 2004.

The Baker Avenue closure notice also informed Reaves she is being fined $500 for the violations on the property.

"Due to her age, Singleton was incapable of stopping the nuisance on her premises and is not being fined," the notice said.

Singleton, a retired home health aide, is the last surviving sibling of a family of 11. She moved here from South Carolina in the 1920s.

Because of her age, police may involve the Onondaga County Department of Social Services to ensure she has an appropriate place to live during the six months the property is boarded up.

After the occupants move out, police will board up the building to prevent people from accessing the property, Cecile said. They will also post a notice that the house was closed by the police chief for violating the nuisance abatement law.

As for Reaves, she plans to fight the closure.

"My grandmother is being treated inhumanely and it's not fair for her to be punished because of the bad decisions of one of her younger relatives," Reaves said. "In her elder years, she's being discarded like a rag. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this could ever happen to us."

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