‘That green house’

By Emily Jarrett

March 28, 2014

It had been an eyesore for years.

The green two-story house at the corner of South Massachusetts Avenue and East Fifth Street had broken windows and doors, a crumbling roof, gutters that were falling off, and a foundation that was in disrepair. Not to mention the furniture left on the front porch and piles of trash surrounding the home. Animal Control officers were called to the home on multiple occasions.

The building had become somewhat infamous in its squalor. Anyone driving by on the way to downtown or the post office knew it by sight, “that green house that needs so much work.”

For years, hundreds of complaints were made against it by neighbors.

This week the home was demolished, only taking a day and a half to tear down a home that, to the frustration of many, stood for years.

Complaints pile up

There are many homes in Sedalia like the green one at 301 E. Fifth St. — residences that are in danger of collapse, with roofs caving in and listing walls. Sometimes these homes are owned by out-of-state property owners, who have little incentive to keep up with the house’s condition. Others are owned by local residents who have either no inclination, or resources, for the ongoing work needed to maintain a home. Some have been abandoned and now sit empty or as a place for squatters to spend the night.

City officials know about these homes and, in most cases, are just as frustrated as residents that more can’t be done.

“We get complaints on these same houses over and over, we know they’re there and we don’t like them any more than their neighbors do,” said Chief Building Official Andy Burt. “It’s a frustrating process but it’s necessary. When it comes to the point that we’re tearing down someone’s home, we have to do it correctly.”

Tearing down a residence is the last resort and the legal process the city must go through to get to that point is lengthy. Paperwork must be filed, records of notice violations must be kept and homeowners must be given opportunities to fix problems.

“No matter how badly the property looks, we can’t just go in and say ‘this is an eyesore, we’re going to tear it down,’” said Code Enforcement Officer Esther Schultz. “There’s a system we have to follow.”

Violations and notifications

For the green home on East Fifth Street, the legal process began in January 2012 with an exterior violation letter. As one of the city’s two code enforcement officers, part of Schultz’s duties includes verifying that a violation has been made when a complaint comes in. A letter is sent, both through regular mail and certified letter, to each of the occupants of the home detailing what the problems are, what city ordinances are in violation and what steps must be taken to rectify the situation.

“In the case of (the green home), there were no steps to the front door, windows and doors were broken, the roof had several problems,” Schultz said. “These were all things I could see from the public right-of-way. We’re not allowed to go onto someone’s property, but the majority of the time major problems like these are pretty self-evident.”

Upon receiving exterior violation letters, some owners call Schultz to make their appeals.

“We work with people as much as possible for these problems, giving them extensions if they can show at least a good-faith effort that they’re working on the home,” she said. “There are some low-interest loans or grants available to help pay for the repairs, but there are strict rules — homeowners must have insurance and be up to date on their taxes.”

From the first violation letter, owners are typically given 30 days to begin repairs. Documents show the owners of the green home did nothing in the time allotted and the case was sent to the city Municipal Court system in April 2012.

“When a case goes to court, we again try to work with the owners,” Schultz said. “We might give them multiple deadlines, ‘if you can fix the roof problem by this date and this by this date, we can extend the overall deadline.’”

By this point the green home had become a nuisance; because the doors and windows were open, anyone could get into the building and be injured. Also, the foundation was so crumbled the entire structure was in danger of collapse. By April 2013 the home was moved into the dangerous building phase.

A danger to the public

There is a list of qualifications for a building to be considered dangerous. The city has a four-page checklist of possible violations and documents show the green home had multiple items checked off. From simple issues such as needing paint or a broken window to more serious violations including a cracked foundation and doors open to the elements. Once a building is declared dangerous, the case goes to the Board of Appeals.

The BoA is a panel made up of five residents who hear out the case against an owner whose building has been named as dangerous. The board has been known to grant extensions to owners who want to stay in their homes, up to a year in one case, but generally their ruling depends on the history of the home and the work put in it.

According to Schultz, one of the green home’s owners attended the BoA meeting but said the repairs needed were too much.

“At that point the property was vacant and was abandoned,” she said. “The owner said the house was just too far gone for him to be able to repair it and they decided to just walk away.”

“The board’s finding conclusions are an order, so in this case they give the owners a 30-day demolition order,” Burt said. “That order gives us permission to, if the owners don’t start it themselves, demolish the house.”

By May 2013 a bid had been put out for demolition of the green home but most came back over the city’s $5,000 limit.

“If something is over $5,000 we have to go out to formal bid, which is a longer process,” Burt said.

As per city ordinance, the Sedalia City Council had to OK the bid and approve the demolition, something that didn’t happen until February of this year.

“We had some possible major building demolitions, including the buildings on South Ohio Avenue, to consider when we were looking at our demolition budget,” Burt said. “We had to wait until we got some of those issues resolved before we could go out to bid on the green house.”

While waiting for the budget to sort itself out, Burt said in the meantime he worked with local contractors to get the bid below the $5,000 cap and eventually one came in for $4,995.

“Right under the wire,” he said.

After the approval from the council, city staff typically contacts local utility companies to make sure everything is switched off, then contact the demolition company. It’s at their discretion when a building is knocked down, though generally companies get to buildings quickly, Burt said.

“(For the green house) they started work on Tuesday afternoon, got most of the building down and were working on grading and dirt by Thursday,” Burt said.

An ongoing issue

Sedalia isn’t unique in its ongoing problems with dilapidated and dangerous buildings.

“It’s common with a community our size to have these sorts of problems,” Schultz said. “The majority of our homes are more than 100 years old and, like any home, require regular maintenance. It starts with peeling paint and can lead to much bigger problems.”

Currently the city has about two dozen homes that are in the dangerous building phase or are close to it. Last year the department had $150,000 in its budget for demolitions, this year the figure has been cut to $90,000.

“We’re hoping we’ll be able to get by with $90,000, but there are a lot of big projects coming up,” Burt said.

Both Burt and Schultz acknowledged the process of taking care of an eyesore residence is cumbersome.

“It may look like we’re not doing anything or we’re dragging our feet on getting these structures fixed or demolished,” Burt said. “But that isn’t the case. We have a very specific set of rules we have to follow.”

Now that the green home has been demolished, a lien has been put on the owner’s taxes for payment of the demolition fees but it’s unknown if that money will be seen. Sometimes owners leave the lien, happy to have the problem of a dangerous building solved for them.

In the meantime, the neighbors on South Massachusetts Avenue and East Fifth Street no longer have a crumbling eyesore to look at. It’s now an empty lot.