Dependable Erection

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Gary highlighted this particular story yesterday about folks in the Cleveland Holloway neighborhood temporarily saving one of their historic homes from destruction. Turns out that city policies make it cheaper and easier for a property owner to neglect a home, allowing its value to fall, and then bulldoze it, than to repair it and sell or rent it.

The Herald-Sun follows up today:
The inciting event was the presence of a bulldozer Tuesday morning in front of 407 Ottawa Ave., a 1920s bungalow assessed at $43,603.

Neighbors had thought the house was up for repairs, but a quick call to the property manager, attorney Jack Walker, confirmed their fears. Ultimately, one of the residents put up $900 of his own money for the demolition crew to leave. Demolition has been put on hold for a week.

"For the neighborhood, what's significant is that when these houses are bulldozed, they become vacant lots that can't be built on," said Natalie Spring, a Cleveland-Holloway leader. "One of the problems we've had in the neighborhood is because there are a lot of vacant lots, there are fewer eyes looking at what's going on."

The incident has brought back memories of when the century-old 501 Oakwood Ave. house was put on the demolition block by the city last fall and has undermined, to some degree, the growing trust between residents and the Neighborhood Improvement Services department.

Residents are working with the city to expand historic preservation in the area, located east of downtown along Holloway Street. But the incident suggests there is a communication problem with city departments at best, according to the residents, and active encouragement by the city to tear down buildings at worst.

Here's the part that jumps out at me, though:
NIS' mission is to ensure safe housing by enforcing the minimum housing code. The department notifies neighborhoods of homes that are up for repairs and ones up for possible demolition.

Another agency, the Durham City-County Inspections Department, actually issues permits for demolition.

Under city regulations, any house with renovations costing more than 50 percent of its assessed value could apply for demolition.

NIS Director Constance Stancil said the department was simply doing its job and does not have the authority to stop demolition by private owners. Further, the NIS and the inspections department do not communicate on demolition permits.

I'm sure there's a very good reason for that. And someone smarter than me can tell me what it is. It might be the same reason the Planning Department and the Inspections Department don't communicate when it comes to reports of illegal construction, either.

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  • Barry - after reading about this incident, I have a question about a neglected 1920's era home in my own neighborhood.

    The house has severe problems - no heat, damaged roof, broken windows covered in plastic, etc. A long-time renter recently moved out, and it now sits empty.

    The tax record is in the name of an individual who appears to be deceased. I don't know who controls the house or what their plans are now that it's vacant.

    I'm concerned that either the house will sit vacant and decay further, or that it will be rented out as-is without repairs. What's the best thing I can do at this point?

    By Blogger Jeremy T, at 3:52 PM  

  • Jeremy - i wish i could help. I run into one brick wall after another when it comes to dealing with the city regarding problem houses in my nabe.

    You might try over at Gary's place and see if anyone there has any good suggestions for you. I don't know what neighborhood you're in, but if you have a decent neighborhood association, you could also see if anyone on the board or in the group has any expertise dealing with these issues.

    As you can tell from these stories, if you go directly to NIS, i think you increase the likelihood of having the house torn down, which may or not be what you're looking for.

    By Blogger Barry, at 4:03 PM  

  • Serious question. I'm not trying to be my usual wise ass self. Why is it that a lot created by tearing down a house cannot be built upon again? Some houses are just too far gone to economically save.

    By Blogger Locomotive Breath, at 4:13 PM  

  • Barry: Are you the Barry Ragin who went to Stonybrook? This is Dave Reitman!

    (914) 693-9165

    By Blogger Dave666, at 4:34 PM  

  • Dude - drop me a line at the address on the right and i'll tell you how to get in touch with me.

    By Blogger Barry, at 4:39 PM  

  • Yeah, given that demolition seems to be the least expensive option, I'm leery of doing anything that might tip the scales in that direction. We're in Burch Ave, for what it's worth, and running it by the neighborhood association is going to be my next step - I believe they've worked on similar situations in the past.

    As for rebuilding on teardowns, that usually results in, at best, new structures that fail to preserve the character of the neighborhood. Developers will shoot for cheap construction and the maximum number of renters per sq foot that zoning allows - in Burch we've got several squat brick and cinder block duplexes that replaced torn down 1920s bungalows, and they look completely out of place.

    What's worse, especially in "transitional" neighborhoods, is when nobody wants to take on the risk of new construction at all and you end up with permanently vacant lots. At least with run down old houses, somebody can buy them on the cheap and slowly put money into them - but there's none of that with a vacant lot, where you either build or you don't.

    By Blogger Jeremy T, at 5:06 PM  

  • There are two problems with tear downs, the vacant lot that is left for years. If you like, I can take you on a tour of our neighborhood that highlights the staircase headstones. There are stairs that once led to houses that now lead to vacant lots.
    The second is that it is my understanding that many of the craftsmans in our neighborhood are built on very small non-conforming lots. If the house is torn down, generally an owner of a lot cannot building anything new without tearing down a house on either side in order to meet current set back requirements.

    And as to economically gone- there is a huge difference in Durham between tax value and market value. Demolition permits are based on tax value not market value. Again, I can show you how tax values differ by tens of thousands of dollars between houses of comperable size and condition that sit next door to each other.

    By Blogger Natalie&Harris, at 5:13 PM  

  • Most of the scumbag landlords that i know of are not willing to spend $20K - 50K to bring their houses up to code, and get them sellable, or rentable to anyone who has any options at all.

    I can't imagine any of those folks spending a nickel to actually build a new house, not even taking into account the questions Jeremy and Natalie raise.

    By Blogger Barry, at 5:39 PM  

  • While I could give a variety of reasons that probably wouldn't appeal to those in the "why would you want to live in an old house when you can live in a new one?" set, perhaps this is useful. The portion of the Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood that this is located in has applied for national register district status with the State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service. Eliminating contributing structures to that district can jeopardize the listing of that district. A NR district provides a 30% tax credit for renovation to contributing owner-occupied structures and a 40% tax credit for income-producing. (% of money spent on renovation.) So losing structures has a very direct impact on neighbors' finances, in addition to the usual property value impact of a bunch of vacant lots that no one is going to build on. (Unless it's a really cheaply made plastic house built by some absentee landlord who could not care less what goes on in the house or the neighborhood.)

    As you might imagine, I could go on for awhile about reasons why tearing down old houses rarely pays off in the long run.


    By Blogger Gary, at 6:45 PM  

  • A few random comments:

    Back in the olden days (1970s? 80s?) I recall that there was a program in Baltimore where houses in blighted neighborhoods were sold for $1 to people committed to renovating them. Could some program like that work here? I don't know the details...even raising it to $10k would spark investors' interest.

    Barry mentioned in an earlier post that there was some talk about a neighborhood advocate at the city...there is definitely an issue with city (and county) departments not communicating key information to each other. I know from my years in corporate life that if you don't have all the departments working together towards the same goals, you have a broken system where none of the individual groups have any chance of meeting their goals. I would think a municipality would be similar.

    If there is a problem of needing a small footprint on small, nonconforming lots in order to meet setback requirements, that sounds to me like an opportunity for a creative, think-out-of-the-box architect. As the McMansion owners default on their mortgages, maybe microhouses will become more attractive.

    The difference between tax value and market value was supposed to be addressed in the latest assessment...we happened to have had a market assessment around the same time, so our tax/market assessments were within 10k of each other, a narrower gap than when we bought the house. I know some people in Trinity Park are howling because there tax assessments have increased significantly...but my guess is that they are pretty close to the market assessments. On the other hand, I talked a realtor friend about a year ago who said that in blighted neighborhoods, the logic is reversed: the tax assessed value is often higher than what the houses actually sell for.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:40 PM  

  • Jeremy T - with the owner's name from the tax roll, if that person is recently deceased, there may be an Estate proceeding opened in their name at the Courthouse in the Estates Office. That's public information and in the file you can find the Executor or Administrator of the Estate of the deceased homeowner, along with his or her address. Maybe even their phone number. In any event, you can find some contact information and see if they plan on selling the house or what. The heirs may be wanting to sell the house to an interested buyer anyway. Or may be out-of-state and would welcome an interested buyer with a reasonable offer.

    Also, Preservation Durham may be able to offer some practical advice too:

    By Blogger Durham Bull Pen, at 8:55 PM  

  • Preservation Durham has an Endangered Properties Coordinator, Pauli Henson, who will be glad to help out on issues such as yours, Jeremy. You can reach her at 682-3036. You can find more info about the Endangered Properties program here:
    We also need volunteers for the committee, so let us know if you'd like to be involved.

    Ellen Dagenhart

    By Anonymous Ellen Dagenhart, at 10:10 PM  

  • Thanks, everybody, for the feedback. We're talking with neighbors now and trying to come up with a plan of action.

    Unfortunately, when I arrived home today I noticed a "for rent" sign in the yard from "Jeffrey & Company Realtors." There is no evidence that they've even done anything since the renter moved out (they didn't even bother to replace the unhinged and open access door to the crawl-space or remove the trash from the yard). I believe this to be a small-time slum lord who has rented out several other borderline condemnable houses.

    It's curious to me that the tax record still shows the deceased prior owner, even (as best I can tell) 8 years after the apparent death. Maybe my information from the internets has been faulty - it seems unlikely that an estate would be in limbo for so long. I suppose in any case a visit to the courthouse is in order.

    By Blogger Jeremy T, at 10:55 PM  

  • Careful there -- some of us small-time slumlords are easily offended. People need a place to live, and can't always afford a nice place. What's wrong with me parking my money in my community rather than in Exxon stock?

    By Blogger dcrollins, at 5:26 AM  

  • Depends, David.

    Do you visit the properties once in a blue moon to make sure your tenants aren't dumping trash all over the place? Are you OK with your tenants tying up multiple dogs on too short leads in your yard? Do you make sure the heating system functions, or are you OK if the tenants are burning pallet wood to keep warm? How many junk cars do you allow to accumulate on the property before you ask your tenants to get rid of them? If the police have to break in to your property to arrest one of your tenants on gun charges, do you look into starting eviction proceedings?

    Being poor is not a crime.

    But the way some landlords treat their lower income tenants (and by extension, their neighbors and neighborhoods) is.

    By Blogger Barry, at 8:56 AM  

  • Well put, Barry. There's no reason "affordable housing" needs to be synonymous with "dilapidated hellhole." IMO, if you can't even provide a heater for your tenants, you don't need to be in the business of renting property.

    The thing is, the house in my neighborhood is in a relatively early stage of decay and could easily be saved - presumably the prior owner was a normal land lord who actually did maintenance. The previous tenant even did some work on his own dime to keep things together (for example, he sealed up some of the non-functional duct work to keep squirrels from running throughout the house).

    When a house is allowed to decay like this, things just escalate until - as in the story from Barry's original post - the most economical way to deal with a property is to destroy the house. This is an outcome that's in nobody's best interest.

    So sorry to offend all the slum lords out there, but really - couldn't you at least perform enough maintenance to prevent a house from disintegrating around its tenants? Is it really that hard to be a slum lord? Pardon me for feeling no sympathy for you.

    By Blogger Jeremy T, at 9:47 AM  

  • David is working on his first hit single, "Damn it feels good to be a slumlord!"

    I might have some sympathy for slumlords if the tax code weren't so heavily tilted towards making money once you've bought the house even if you do absolutely nothing to take care of it.

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 12:21 PM  

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