E. Duane Howard is on a roll these days. The recently elected Vice President of the Southeast Action Forum (SEAF), who became a homeowner and not just a City Council watchdog about seven years ago, has chided city officials for the lack of trash cans outside the new Dollar General Store in Southeast Roanoke; he’s also complained about shoddy sidewalks that make it hard for people to get around and he expressed some dismay that City Council was focusing too much on a physical condition he suffers from, by having him use a special speaker’s podium at a council meeting earlier this week.
All in a day’s work for Howard, a former City Council candidate who has not ruled out another run in the spring, when several seats are up for grabs. But members of the Southeast Action Forum and several neighborhood groups – Howard included – banded together over the past few weeks to stop a new convenience store on 9th Street from being able to sell beer and wine.
“This would be a good example of pulling together on issues of concern for the neighborhood- because of the problem that we already have with alcohol and related issues,” said Howard. Those issues include trash, loitering and even crime, according to Howard.
Basically the SEAF made the city Planning Commission and City Council abide by proffers placed on the property in 2002, when it was first rezoned from residential to commercial. They argued successfully to both boards that the area didn’t need another vendor selling alcohol, especially one so close to Jackson Middle School.
The store was also selling paraphernalia commonly used for recreational drugs like marijuana and crack cocaine – pipes, rolling papers, scales and the like. “That was very poor judgment on the part of the proprietor,” noted Howard, who enjoys view of the Roanoke River, Mill Mountain and the valley from his small bungalow in Southeast.
Howard saluted Roanoke City Police Chief Chris Perkins as well, who came to the Planning Commission session to site statistics about the spike in crime rates near stores that sell beer and wine. “He’s been out there in the neighborhood with us,” said Howard, “and the Planning Commission took note of the weight and gravity of the Chief’s letter to them.”
The Southeast Action Forum has been around for decades notes Howard, but has grown stronger in recent years as more young homeowners move into traditionally blue collar Southeast, looking for housing bargains. “Southeast tends to have a negative reputation in the city, but with [more progressive homeowners] …we want to have a better, safer neighborhood.”
Howard, a member of the Belmont Neighborhood Association and the Starview Heights Neighborhood Watch, is concerned about rental properties in Southeast that are not maintained by absentee landlords. “It is really a problem that is citywide,” said Howard, who also feels Roanoke City doesn’t do enough to hold landlords’ feet to the fire. Cheap rent often attracts a less desirable tenant but Howard said anyone can show more pride in where they live, in part by keeping their property maintained.
More home ownership will help make things better he adds. Until then, “we still don’t have enough teeth in the laws that effect rental properties.” Often Roanoke City officials find themselves tied up in court by lawyers for the landlords, according to Howard, who says he “knows good landlords – and I know bad landlords.” Howard has a program to deal with landlords, a concept he will pitch to the city.
Howard and other members of southeast neighborhood groups are also concerned about possible expansion plans for the Roanoke Rescue Mission, which wants to relocate the thrift store to another location in the area, then move the kitchen and dining hall to the former 4th Street store. He’s afraid that will mean more beds and a higher nighttime capacity for the Mission.
Howard says it’s time for other quadrants of the city to bear some of the burden for taking care of the poor and homeless. Community meetings and conflict resolution sessions have not quelled all of the concerns of neighbors in Southeast about the Rescue Mission. “Any expansion just means bringing in more people. They’ve reached their capacity to expand in Southeast and they need to look at other [alternatives].”
If it’s a quality of life issue in Southeast, expect E. Duane Howard to weigh in these days.
By Gene Marrano