Stand in front of an old, white, multi-story house on W. Hamilton in Springfield's Grant Beach Neighborhood and you can see why it's been a source of frustration for neighbors for a long time. The front and back doors are wide open--so are several windows. There's a couch in the front yard, tires in a side yard and a large pile of junk just behind the house. The inside is in a state of disrepair, and a steady stream of water flows from a broken pipe under the kitchen sink, flooding the floor."
Rebecca Mayabb has lived across from this house for 18 years. While it’s always been a problem, only recently has it been this bad. She said the last residents there moved out at the end of the summer. After that, people came in, tossed everything out into the yard and left it there. According to Mayabb, not only that, but a side yard, used by dogs as a bathroom, was never cleaned up. She feels the property is affecting her health and quality of life.
"I don't go outside much in the front yard because I have allergies to the mold, and the mold kind of floats around. And then...also mice come across to everybody's house from that house, and when they first moved out there was a lot of bugs that left that house since there was nobody else there to feed off of--they went to everybody's house in the neighborhood," she said.
Just recently, she and her husband noticed some homeless individuals were squatting in the house.
One major component of Zone Blitz is addressing nuisance properties like this one. Chronic nuisance properties, according to the City of Springfield, are defined "as those properties in which repeated complaint calls are received and responded to, including from the City's Building Development Services, Police and Fire Departments, as well as other calls for service."
Chris Straw, director of Building Development Services for the City of Springfield, said a concern raised at Zone Blitz neighborhood meetings was about the living conditions of single-family residences.
Out of that came the Safe Housing Inspection Pilot Program. As part of the voluntary 90-day program, the city identified 63 single-family rental properties in the west-central neighborhood, generally located between the boundaries of Chestnut Expressway on the north, Grand to the south, South Ave./Boonville to the east and Kansas Expressway on the west. The owners were contacted in writing asking permission for the city to inspect the homes for life safety issues.
"Out of that pilot study, our goal is to determine in a very consistent manner, what type of issues were we finding in this designated area--not just Zone 1, not 3, 4 but, 'ok, we've targeted an area that's got a high number of rental properties,'" Straw said.
First responders and organizations providing home-based services can let the city know about any life safety issues they see in homes. But allowing inspectors entry to the homes will be voluntary.
Response so far from home owners has been very low--only two have contacted the city. And in both of those cases, nothing too serious was found--there were some loose electrical plugs and covers missing on some electric receptacles, according to Straw. The owners have 30 days to fix those issues.
But he hopes the study will answer questions like "what problems are we finding?" and "what kind of support are we getting?"
"Hopefully from that we can glean information to present back to council to give them a better understanding of really what we're bumping into," Straw said. "It also allows us to look into our own language--code language--'well, what works? What doesn't work?' so that we can look at maybe rewriting some of that."
The project includes an expanded partnership with social service providers and the faith community, according to city officials, to develop a protocol for alternate housing for tenants or home owners during remediation. It's working with One Door to address that need.
Straw said chronic nuisance properties are a big problem in the city. At any one time, the city will have as many as 300 active cases dealing with everything from weeds to trash to uninhabitable structures. For the year, he’s anticipating his department will have received around 10,000 service requests.
According to Straw, the most common problems they see are accumulation of trash and debris, tall grass and weeds and vehicles parked in the front yard. Under City Code, Chapter 74, those properties are classified as a nuisance.
"With trash and debris, it can draw rodents, all types of various varmints. It tends to put blight on the surrounding properties that are well-maintained," he said. "If it's a vacant structure and it's open and vacant, you have transients that will use it. You create an environment where neighborhood kids can go and do whatever."
Mike Ramsey is a Police Area Representative (PAR) officer with the Springfield Police Department, serving the northwestern part of the city. He said when he first started his position, he met with Building Development Services employees who told him to let them know about the nuisance properties in his patrol area.
"I said, 'I don't think you can handle all of the addresses that I can provide you because there's a lot,'" said Ramsey.
He knows the inspectors are “extremely overwhelmed,” so he sends them only the ones he feels need the most attention.
He said, not only do chronic nuisance properties create health issues for the people who live there, they also sometimes go hand in hand with criminal activity.
"Someone who's, you know, trying to save a little money for whatever may pile up trash and not pay for trash service, and that individual sometimes is either drug user or a drug user and a drug seller," he said.
And occasionally in those situations, you run into stolen property, according to Ramsey.
While some owners of nuisance properties are more than willing to remediate the situation, others, including some landlords, aren't.
"I've got others who I have provided lists of case numbers where the residents have been involved in drug activity where we have served search warrants at the residence and caught people using drugs, selling drugs, caught individuals in stolen vehicles, recovered stolen property there--send these people a list of all this stuff, and they absolutely refuse to evict the individuals because they're paying rent," he said.
While a situation like that isn't necessarily considered a chronic nuisance property, according to Ramsey, no one wants to live next door to a house where drug use and selling is taking place.
Certain problem properties stand out in his mind. He’s seen some that haven’t had any utilities for probably years.
"Where the urine and feces is so piled up in the toilets and bathroom and bathtubs that the smell...keeps you from going inside," Ramsey said.
Chris Straw also has seen a few that are hard to forget—like one near Commercial and National that the city helped clean up. The homeowners had no utilities, and their home was so messy and piled with stuff, they’d moved into an RV in the backyard with no sanitary services.
"We ended up cleaning that up, and that was five or six big construction dumpster full of stuff. It was just terrible," he said.
Some chronic nuisance properties are that way simply because the occupant can’t afford trash service or is elderly and can’t keep up with what needs to be done.
Straw said that’s where the community can step in and help.
According to Straw, through Zone Blitz, more than 200 groups have signed up to say they’ll help out when needed.
"It's not something that takes years or months or weeks of work to take care of," he said. "It's those little things that--these people need a little help. We do it," he said.
He used an example of a resident with bags of trash piled up outside their house, but they can only afford to put out one bag a week. Someone with a trash bin outside their business could maybe take the trash and dispose of it there, immediately eliminating the problem.
A recent fire in Springfield revealed unsafe living conditions for an elderly couple. A neighbor gave them a temporary place to stay until a relative was able to take them in while their house is cleaned up.
"It's neighbor helping neighbor," Straw said. "That can go a long way."
What happens when a complaint about a property is received by the city? According to Straw, the first thing his office does is send someone to inspect the property to verify that there is a violation. If there is, inspectors will post a courtesy notice at the property and also mail one to the property owner and any tenants that might live there. They're given a set amount of time to correct the violations and can contact Building Development Services with any questions. When that time is up, inspectors return to the property, and if the violations haven't been corrected, they'll post a legal notice. The owners and/or tenants are given a specific amount of time again to correct the problems, and they have the right to request (in writing) an administrative hearing. If a hearing is requested, Straw said everything stops, and a hearing date is scheduled. If one isn't requested, and the necessary corrections aren't made or a "due diligence" attempt to correct the problems isn't made, the city will reinspect the property, contact its clean up contractor, bring them onsite and discuss what needs to be done. Once the invoice for the work has been approved, it's turned over to the city's finance department to try to seek payment from the owner. If that's not successful, the case is moved to the Greene County Recorder of Deeds and placed as an additional assessment on the property along with property taxes, according to Straw.
He said property owners and tenants are getting better about paying money owed for cleanups the city has been forced to do. In years past, according to Straw, collecting money owed was "slow and cumbersome." But he said as legal steps the city is allowed to pursue have improved, it's gotten easier.
"What I hope is that, through our continued improvement in our processes, procedures and desire to see improvement, is that the community as a whole will recognize that, 'hey, the community is serious about this issue, I need to take care of my own property,' and it no longer becomes an issue for anybody," he said.
As for the house on W. Hamilton, Rebecca Mayabb said their neighborhood PAR officer told her the owner said a few days ago that he’d board it up soon, but that hasn’t happened yet. Chris Straw told KSMU the city's Building Development Services office is working both a trash case and a dangerous buildings case on that property. According to Straw, "a title search is being completed at this time in order to send the legal documents...to start the cleanup and set a possible hearing date for the dangerous building portion of the case." Mayabb is optimistic things will change in the near future.
"And then hopefully within the next two years, we've been waiting for that for the last 18 years, they're supposed to come and tear it down because it's been an eyesore for over 20, and we've been here for 18," she said.
Springfield residents can let the city know about a nuisance property near them by calling the Citizen Resource Center at 864-1010. Complaints can be turned in anonymously.