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Fix it up or tear it down

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The garage at a Franklin man’s home leans dangerously toward the alley. The twisted wood and hole-dotted roof look ready to collapse at any time.

The city wants to get the unsafe structure torn down. But the electrical connection that powers Mike Jaggers’ home is inside. He’d be forced out of his house if the garage came down.

Jaggers, 61, tries to scrimp together whatever he can to fix up his home, but he’s receiving disability payments for a leg injury that doesn’t allow him to work and doesn’t have much extra money after paying bills. The city has been working with him for months to find a way to get the garage torn down without making him homeless. He wants to see it gone as much as the city, and he’s grateful they’ve been patient and tried to help him.

“It’s very embarrassing. I try not to think about it,” Jaggers said. “If I had it my way, this place would be immaculate.”

Whether it’s leaning walls, collapsing roofs, fire hazards or electrical problems, Franklin’s unsafe building program gives owners two options — fix it up or tear it down. The program was formed in 2010, typically with fewer than five properties monitored at a time. Four homes were added this month, and 10 to 15 more could be included by the end of the year, said Rhoni Oliver, Franklin community development specialist, who oversees the program.

The program can connect the city with people like Jaggers who have unsafe properties but don’t have the means to fix them. Then the city can work to find grants or volunteer groups that can help with repairs.

The repair orders also can nudge the owner of a vacant home to finally take a step to repair a roof or knock down an old garage or face fines from the city. Oliver also connects property owners with Habitat for Humanity, which can take an unsafe house, demolish it and build a new home for someone else in the community.

If an owner never responds or refuses to do anything to improve the property, the city can take steps to demolish it. For example, Franklin used the unsafe building process to tear down the former Red Carpet Inn near Interstate 65 in 2012 after the building was falling apart and attracting crime and squatters.

Oliver said she issues orders only for properties that have significant structural flaws, such as walls that are leaning or a foundation that is cracked and exposed to weather. Those types of problems can be a danger to others if the building collapses or creates a health hazard, such as mold. A house that needs to be painted or needs new siding may annoy the neighbors but is not a danger to residents or passers-by, she said.

Oliver responds to complaints from neighbors but also drives around neighborhoods and looks for herself. She gets tips from the city’s code enforcement officer, who watches for nuisances such as high grass and weeds or trash in yards. She’ll then take a closer look to see if the house has structural issues.

The goal is not just to fix a dangerous building but also to try to improve neighborhoods. If neighbors see an effort to fix a rundown house, it can encourage them to make improvements to their own property, she said.

Once Oliver sends repair or demolition orders to property owners, they’re required to attend hearings to get information about what progress is being made to address the issues identified. Those hearings are conducted by Kim Van Valer, the Franklin city court judge, and she’s able to issue fines or order a demolition if nothing is being done.

Putting a home into the unsafe building programs allows the city to open a dialogue with the owner. For Jaggers, the city has heard his story and tried to find alternatives such as getting him qualified for a state home repair grant.

A woman purchased the former Angel Care nursing home on North Main Street, which was deemed unsafe after being vacant for years, and has slowly been making repairs. As long as work continues, Oliver said, she is OK with not issuing fines, pushing for the owners to make speedier repairs or forcing demolition.

Volunteers tore out as much of Jaggers’ garage as they could without collapsing the structure. The garage, like the rest of his property, has worn down over the years because he hasn’t been physically or financially able to maintain it. He’s been out of work for 10 years after he was injured on the job, and his monthly disability checks don’t leave much extra. In a good month he might be able to squirrel away $100 toward home repairs, but he often has to dip into that savings when periodic bills, such as car insurance or vet visits for his dog, come up, he said.

He grew up in the house and moved back in 1989 after his father died. When he sits on the swing on his front porch, he can see people driving or walking by look at him and his home with pity in their eyes, he said.

“I can see so many projects I’ve dreamed of for years, but I’m not physically able to do it. There are so many ‘could dos,’” he said.

Jaggers received his demolition order several months ago but hasn’t been able to do much about his garage, he said. The orders have helped push owners who can afford it to make repairs or pay for demolition.

For example, an owner of a Madison Street house tore down their garage after the city sent an order, and three people donated rundown properties to Habitat for Humanity, including the site of the recent women’s build project at 250 W. Adams St.

“It was uninhabitable. It was falling apart. It was unsafe. There was actually a tree growing up through the front porch,” Habitat for Humanity director Lee Ann Wilbur said.

Habitat was able to demolish the long-abandoned house and built a new home for a single mom and her two daughters. Wilbur said that project wouldn’t have happened without the city starting the conversation with the previous owner of the rundown property.

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