Handling unsafe buildings

When a couple purchased a historic Franklin home, their goal was to fix up the house built by a Johnson County judge more than a century and a half ago.

Max and Sandra Thomas cleaned the property and painted the house, but since buying the property about two decades ago finding time to maintain the house, a garage and an outbuilding that used to be a print shop has become challenging, Max Thomas said.

At the age of 77, and still needing to work to support himself, Thomas struggles with having the time and money to make needed roof repairs to a shed and garage on the property, he said.

He wasn’t surprised when he received a letter from Franklin community development specialist Rhoni Oliver, saying the buildings were unsafe and he needed to come to a city hearing to discuss the problem. Thomas has long known that repairs were needed to both structures, and had been saving up materials in hopes of getting started on that work.

What did surprise him was the way the city has offered to work with him and give him time to get the issues resolved, rather than demanding that the structures be torn down, he said.

Since Franklin began its unsafe building program in 2009, the goal has been to find ways to encourage and assist owners with getting their properties fixed, Oliver said.

The city has since sent out 40 notices to property owners for issues ranging from abandoned homes to sheds with damaged roofs, she said. In the majority of those cases, property owners have complied and worked with the city to make repairs or tear down the unsafe structure.

The number of cases in Franklin has risen the past few years, but that is because Oliver has time to handle more cases now that several time consuming ones have been resolved, such as the former Red Carpet Inn near Interstate 65, which was abandoned and eventually torn down by the city, Oliver said.

Along with Franklin, Greenwood and Johnson County also have rules in place to require property owners to fix or tear down buildings that are in a state of severe disrepair and pose a threat to public safety, such as being unstable and at risk of collapsing, or becoming a place where pests and rodents are breeding.

Sometimes officials find out about properties after receiving complaints from neighbors. Other times, they see them while out in the community. Officials will send a letter, notifying the property owner of the situation. Property owners can fix the issue themselves, or the government will do it and then charge the homeowner for the work, often through a tax lien on the property.

Officials have to draw a line between a building that is actually unsafe for the community and one that is just an eyesore, Johnson County Planning Director David Hittle said.

“If you keep too much garbage in a yard or you are not doing a good job with the appearance of a house, then that doesn’t quite cross that threshold,” he said.

In one instance in Franklin, metal sheeting on a carport was coming loose and blowing across a neighborhood. The city gave the property owner 24 hours to resolve the issue. When the issue wasn’t fixed in that timeframe, the city stepped in and did the work itself, Oliver said. In those situations, the cost of the work is tacked onto the property as a tax lien and must be paid when the property is sold, Oliver said.

The majority of homes that have been declared unsafe are ones that have been abandoned, Greenwood building commissioner Lowell Weber said. If a bank hasn’t repossessed the property due to an unpaid mortgage, the challenge can be finding owners, who may either be living out of state or are deceased, he said.

In most cases where a home has fallen into disrepair in Franklin, that’s because no one is living there anymore, Oliver said.

Johnson County’s unsafe building rules are the most recently created ones and were just enacted last year, Hittle said.

The county has wanted the rules for a while, but the concern had always been that they could be used to target historic barns or farmhouses for demolition, he said. That’s not what the county intends to do. Issues in residential neighborhoods have been the county’s primary focus, Hittle said.

In the year since the rules were put in place, the county has sent out notices to three property owners, telling them about repairs needed in the next 60 days, he said. If repairs are going to take longer than that, he’s willing to work with a homeowner as long as progress is being made on the fixes, he said.

The most noticeable fix was to an abandoned home on U.S. 31 south of Franklin, that had a missing garage door and a basement flooded with about three feet of water, a situation that was eventually resolved when a new owner purchased the property and made repairs, Hittle said.

Improvements in Franklin include houses on Lovers Lane, Graham Street, Madison Street and Main Street that were repaired, Oliver said.

Three times, homes in disrepair have been donated by the homeowner to Habitat for Humanity, which can demolish the property and build a new one for a family in need, she said.

By the numbers

Franklin, Greenwood and Johnson County all have rules in place to require property owners to make repairs to unsafe structures. Here’s a look at how many notices each sent out in recent years.

Franklin

2009-2017: 40

Greenwood: Not available

Johnson County

2016-2017: 3

Author photo
Jacob Tellers is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at jtellers@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2702.