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Neighbors, local officials deal with rundown properties

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The owners of this Franklin home have made repairs to the inside, but the city is still working to get needed repairs to the outside complete. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
The owners of this Franklin home have made repairs to the inside, but the city is still working to get needed repairs to the outside complete. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

This house on U.S. 31 has been vacant for years and is filled with trash. A new owner bought it through a county tax sale and plans to start renovating the house this spring. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
This house on U.S. 31 has been vacant for years and is filled with trash. A new owner bought it through a county tax sale and plans to start renovating the house this spring. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

Every summer the grass grows several feet high in front of the abandoned house, snakes slither in through holes in the sides and trash blows out of the house and into neighbors’ yards.

Rodney Reid has lived two doors down from the house at 1611 S. U.S. 31 for 11 years and it’s never looked much better than it does today.

The garage door is broken and exposed to the weather. The yard and house are filled with trash and the basement flooded. The abandoned home is attracting snakes, some as long as 3 feet. No one takes care of it , outside of the county mowing the grass and weeds a few times each summer, he said.

A new owner bought the house through the county tax sale and plans to renovate it this spring. Reid already has waited a year for the new owner to start and is now waiting, somewhat impatiently, for April to see if that work does start.

Neighbors living next to rundown properties are used to waiting for improvement. Last year, Greenwood had about 125 complaints about vacant homes, fined about 12 owners and demolished home.

Franklin is trying to get owners of five properties to make repairs or the city could demolish the buildings. The county health department ordered people to vacate six homes because of health hazards but couldn’t do anything to make owners go above the minimum requirements to make a house livable.

Local governments have limited options to force property owners fix up their homes, especially since many abandoned properties are bank-owned after foreclosures or owned by people who can’t be found. Cities can demolish rundown homes if they are in danger of collapsing but instead try to work with owners before having to spend thousands in taxpayer money to tear down an eyesore.

In the unincorporated parts of the county, the health department can declare a building uninhabitable, but nothing allows the county to actually have the home demolished. Therefore a long-abandoned home, such as the one near Reid, sits as it is for years.

He’s not even sure workers can salvage what’s left.

“The house will never be livable. You’d have to dig it down, replace the basement and start all over,” Reid said.

Reid and other neighbors north of the house try to keep their homes looking nice, but the abandoned home detracts from the small stretch of homes along the highway.

In the summer, Reid will take his lawnmower along U.S. 31 and trim the median in front of all the houses because state road workers don’t get to it as often as he’d like. But each year the weeds and grass grow up around the abandoned house and he’s given up on it.

The home to the south has been for sale for three years and he suspects no one wants to buy it because it’s next to a house filled with trash, he said. Reid once tried to mow the yard at the abandoned house but hit so many bottles and other trash he nearly destroyed his mower, he said.

“They had two 10-cubic-yard dumpsters and filled them up and I can’t tell they even moved anything out,” he said.

The house John and Trudy Quick rent in Franklin also was once for sale, but the real estate agent wasn’t getting any offers because it sits across the street from an apartment building with holes in the roof and ragged siding at 348 E. Kentucky St. They’ve been renting for four years, and the building doesn’t look any better than it did on move-in day.

“All the houses look good

except for the one across the street. I had second thoughts about renting the place,” Trudy Quick said.

When friends or family visit, the first thing they comment on is how nasty the building across the street looks. The building needs major renovations, but even if the owner mowed the grass more often and put on a new coat of paint it would look better, Trudy Quick said.

Both neighbors are keeping tabs on what is being done with each building, but improvements are either moving slowly or not at all. Reid has called the new owners of the U.S. 31 house, BLT Homes, three times since last year asking when they’re going to get started on it.

The Kentucky Street building in Franklin has been included in the city’s unsafe building program since summer and John Quick attends meetings with another neighbor, but the city hasn’t pushed the owners to make exterior improvements, such as replacing the roof or fixing the siding yet.

The owners at the Kentucky Street house have been making improvements on the inside of the house, Franklin community development specialist Rhoni Oliver said. Since they’re doing some work, even if it’s not much at one time, Franklin will continue to require updates and hold off on any plans to demolish the house, she said.

Demolition is the last option and is only considered if the building is a health hazard or if the owner has repeatedly refused to make any improvements, Oliver said.

“It’s not a fast process and if I can work with the owner, my goal is to get it back to minimum standards,” Oliver said.

The city orders owners to repair or demolish unsafe properties, or else the city will have it torn down. Paying for demolition is a last resort, such as when the former Red Carpet Inn near Interstate 65 was collapsing and attracting squatters.

In 2013, Oliver was mainly focusing on four different properties for improvements and three of the owners were making progress every month, she said. The city was able to remove one of those properties, a former restaurant next to 436 E. Jefferson St., from the unsafe building list. The owners of the Marshmallow Monkey vintage store purchased the lot where the restaurant burned down, filled the basement and paved a new parking lot over it last year, she said.

Greenwood spent about eight months getting all the necessary approvals, hiring a contractor and eventually demolishing an unsafe house on Echo Bend Boulevard in the Whispering Trails subdivision, building commissioner Lowell Weber said.

He has a list of about 10 more homes in the city that probably should be knocked down, but he’ll continue to try to contact owners or banks to make improvements. Each demolition costs the city thousands in taxpayer dollars and the city only does about one per year, Weber said.

“If it’s just boarded up and there’s no real big threat to the neighborhood, I don’t do anything with it. If we’ve got a roof falling in and mold within the structure, if there’s something structurally unsound due to the deterioration of the building, we’ll try to start calling the owner,” Weber said.

Greenwood also has new property maintenance codes, which allow the city to fine people if they have high grass, trash in their yards or broken windows, code enforcement officer John Myers said. Greenwood gives owners 10 days to correct the problems or face a fine of $50 per day, which has helped motivate owners to address problems quickly.

The city received complaints about 125 vacant properties in 2013, but only issued citations to 12 that didn’t fix the problem within 10 days, he said.

The county has fewer options and can’t fine owners or demolish houses, planning and zoning director David Hittle said. Outside of rules about high grass, the county has no unsafe building code, he said.

“I wish we had more authority to quickly remove some of those houses. We just don’t. Once people move out of the house and close the doors and just leave, that house might sit there,” Johnson County Health Department administrator John Bonsett said.

Oftentimes a strongly-worded letter is the only option the health department has, Bonsett said. For example, the county wanted to get a home in Needham Township torn down that was owned by a woman in Georgia.

The health department sent her a letter that said the building was unsafe and that she needed to demolish it. She did hire someone to tear down and remove the building within a few weeks,

even though the county didn’t have any legal backing to force her to, he said.

Often, the county waits for an owner to take action. BLT Homes bought the U.S. 31 house at a tax sale in 2013 and is planning to renovate the home, but the project is going to be much more involved than the company originally thought, said Chad Handley, co-general manager of BLT Homes — Indianapolis Region. One issue has been figuring out how to install a new septic system on the small lot and the company has recently figured out how to squeeze it in, he said. Now they’re waiting for the weather to break to get started, he said.

“We do plan on doing a full rehab on that house,” Handley said. “It’s definitely on the list

for cleanup. It is a lot bigger rehab than what we thought we got into.”

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