The owner of a two-story home on West Third Street died in January 2008 without heirs to assume responsibility for the property. The house remained empty for years, and Faith Harders, who lived next door, watched with concern as the house deteriorated.
The roof leaked, soaking the plaster and causing it to fall in several places. Windows were broken out, and the window frames rotted. Thieves broke in and stole copper pipe and copper wiring.
"My greatest fear was a homeless person would break in, start a fire to keep warm and burn the house down," Harders said of the house at 543 West Third. That happened a few years earlier to a vacant house across the street, she said.
Harders called LexCall 311 to notify the city's code enforcement office about the house. That's how the city learns about most run-down and abandoned property.
City officials said they are taking steps to more quickly address issues related to run-down houses. Over the past 21/2 years, the city has increased the number of lawsuits filed against owners of blighted property.
The city is pursuing more than 43 lawsuits for code violations. Some houses are headed to a master commissioner's foreclosure sale (see interactive map at the bottom of this story). "Some we are working a deal with the owner to fix up the property, and they are on a payment plan," city Law Commissioner Janet Graham said.
A substantial number of cases involve historical buildings.
"We're trying to make sure we're proactive on all of our code enforcement cases," Graham said. "The thing about historic houses is if one of them falls down, you are losing a piece of history that can't be replaced. Some of these houses truly have historic aspects."
The process begins with a phone call — usually from a neighbor, code enforcement director David Jarvis said.
When someone calls LexCall 311 to report an abandoned or run-down house, the complaint is forwarded to code enforcement, which sends an officer to inspect.
"We go back every 30 days," Jarvis said.
Planning Commissioner Derek Paulsen said the city tries to work with people who show a willingness to repair their properties.
The city doesn't want to own decayed, vacant houses, Paulsen said. The goal, he said, is "to turn these back into good, useful properties that are not causing problems in these neighborhoods."
"We want to go after those who are abusing the system: owners who allow structures to become so deteriorated that demolition is the only alternative," he said.
For example, Paulsen said, the city initiated foreclosure on a house at 151 Constitution Street in the Constitution Historic District. The vacant house is owned by Alan Moberly, who ignored a long list of code violations for several years.
Graham, the law commissioner, said, "We were very worried the Constitution property was going to be demolished by neglect." The city began a foreclosure lawsuit to recoup back taxes and to recover thousands of dollars in liens. In September, Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine gave Moberly 60 days to make repairs and get the property in shape to sell.
Moberly returned to court in November and again in January, seeking extensions to finish the repairs.
"We had several status conferences before the judge," Graham said.
At the last one, the city said Moberly had not put a for-sale sign in the yard and was not acting in good faith in trying to market the property.
Goodwine ordered that the house be put back on the master commissioner's list for sale. The city is waiting for Master Commissioner James Frazier III to set a sale date.
Neither Moberly nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
Each case is different and each requires a different approach, Graham said. She gave several examples, including a house at 605 Boonesboro Avenue in the Bell Court Historic District. The home had been vacant for several years after the woman who owned it moved out. The electricity was cut off. The house recently was sold at a master commissioner's sale, and the new owners have started renovation.
The city also got involved with two vacant houses owned by Marcelle B. Payton of Chicago. Both houses — which are in the Northside Historic District, at 445 West Second Street and 412 West Third Street — needed repairs.
The house at 412 West Third Street was condemned last year by code enforcement. The city foreclosed, and a master commissioner's sale was scheduled for June 11. Hours before the sale, Payton's attorney paid about $12,000 in code violation fines and back taxes. The city agreed to cancel the sale.
The house was sold in January to Earl and Nora Hoover, who are renovating it.
Last summer, Payton's attorney paid the code enforcement violations for the house at 445 West Second Street and agreed to make a lengthy list of repairs, Graham said. That hasn't happened, and the city notified the attorney that it was going to start citing Payton again. Friday was the deadline to receive his response, Graham said.
Paulsen's department is working on several proposals to help the city address abandoned and deteriorated property more quickly.
One is to bring code enforcement and building inspection into the Department of Planning in July. "What we're hoping is with this efficiency, it will give us better communication and we can go after these issues a little more directly," Paulsen said.
The dormant Vacant Property Review Commission is being revived. Paulsen is appointing seven new members. A database is being created to track code violations.
In some cases, a house deteriorates because the owner doesn't have money to make repairs. Jarvis and Social Service Commissioner Beth Mills have discussed ways to get these homeowners some assistance, Paulsen said. "There are numerous non-profits that would be happy to work with owners to fix up their property," he said.
Linda Carroll, president of the Blue Grass Trust, said she was encouraged by the city's actions. "There's a much higher level of attention on the part of the law commissioner, the planning commissioner, code enforcement and building inspection," she said.
New life for old house
After witnessing 543 West Third Street become more dilapidated, Harders contacted the Blue Grass Trust to see what could be done to rescue the house. It was built in 1835 and was the boyhood home of artist Thomas Satterwhite Noble, the first director of the Art Academy of Cincinnati.
That house and Harders' house on West Third are unusual because they originally were part of the same structure.
In the late 1800s, a man bought the house, tore out the wide center hall and created a house for each of his two daughters. Harders' is the right side of the original; the neighbor's house is the left.
As a first step, the Blue Grass Trust put 543 West Third on its annual list of endangered historic structures to call attention to its fragile condition.
In 2011, the organization began work with code enforcement and PNC Bank, which held the mortgage, to save the house. The effort took two years.
"We untangled something that never, never was going to be resolved otherwise," said Carroll.
The city seemed unaware of the owner's death, Carroll said. "They continued to send notices of code violations to the owner, a dead woman with no heirs," she said.
PNC Bank had foreclosed on the property, had taken a loss and seemingly forgot the house, said Harry Richart, a former PNC president who is now retired.
"It was about this time that National City and PNC were merging. The house didn't come up on anybody's radar screen," he said.
The Blue Grass Trust asked Richart whether PNC Bank would assign the $66,000 mortgage to the trust. The bank agreed.
"My company was willing to move the house back into the hands of someone who would take care of it," Richart said.
"We foreclosed on the property, and had it put up for sale by the master commissioner," Carroll said. The trust bought the house and received clear title.
"The Blue Grass Trust was the catalyst that uncovered this property and did all the leg work," Richart said. Several other historic properties need similar attention, he said.
The trust cleaned the debris out of the house, and it went up for sale last fall. In December, Don Wathan, owner of Nick Ryan's Saloon on Jefferson Street, bought it for $80,000, Carroll said.
Wathan has remodeled more than 40 houses, most in the Chevy Chase area. He sent in a crew to gut the interior, stripping it down to the wood studs and brick walls.
Wathan figured he will spend $150,000 renovating the house. Plans call for three bedrooms, 31/2 baths, a large kitchen, a living room and a spacious back porch. The pine floors will be patched, restored and refinished.
"This is not my first rodeo," Wathan said, chuckling. "Fixing up houses is in my blood."
View Court-ordered foreclosures in a larger map