GULFPORT — Police Chief Robert Vincent looked around the room and asked, "Who has a vacant house in their neighborhood?"
Virtually every hand in the crowd went up Monday night at the monthly crime watch meeting at the Gulfport Neighborhood Center.
"There's no way for us to know how many or the circumstances of vacant houses," he said. "The people who live around them are the only people who know if a house is vacant.
"It's incumbent on you to let us know."
Vincent and City Manager Jim O'Reilly addressed residents' concerns about abandoned properties after the subject came up at the January crime watch meeting.
"It's a problem that concerns everybody. People who own these houses need to be responsible for things like mowing the lawn and fixing windows," said Ernie Stone, coordinator of the city's Crime Awareness & Prevention Team.
The city tries to crack down on properties that are in disrepair by slapping the owners with code violation citations.
There are 140 to 180 code enforcement cases open at any one time, O'Reilly said. That is the best guess O'Reilly had for how many properties are abandoned in the city of 7,500 housing units, 4,200 of which are single-family homes.
The number is in line with other cities and every section of the city has vacant houses.
"Just as crime is throughout the community, there are properties in legal limbo throughout the community," O'Reilly said.
"From Eighth Avenue to the Pasadena Yacht & County Club, there are foreclosed properties."
Most citations are for high grass and weeds, trash and debris or unlicensed vehicles, said Fred Metcalf, the city's community development director.
While code enforcement is the city's tool for getting properties cleaned up, some at the meeting questioned its efficiency. It takes about 75 days to go through the process, O'Reilly said.
He said the city has considered hiring a special magistrate to speed up the process.
Until then, it's up to the residents to police their own neighborhoods.
Vincent told residents they should make empty houses look as if someone lives there, something he and his own neighbors do for the vacant houses in his neighborhood.
"I roll the garbage cans of empty houses out to the street," Vincent said. He and his wife even park their cars in the driveways of empty houses to make it look as if someone lives there to discourage squatters and vandalism.