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Run-down homes a scary sight
But, cleaning them up gets complicated
new deh zombie house main pic web
This fire-damaged house on 19th Street is an example of the houses the Great Bend city officials face when they deal with run-down properties. - photo by DALE HOGG Great Bend Tribune

The City of Great Bend’s procedure for handling the unsafe or dangerous structures is the following:

1. The enforcement officer files a statement with the Governing Body describing property that is unsafe, dangerous or abandoned. That statement should include:

a. A description of the property.

b. Where the property is located.

c. Whether the property is unsafe or dangerous or whether the property is abandoned.

2. The Governing Body then passes a resolution fixing a time and place at which the owner, the owner’s agent, any lienholders of record and any occupant of the structure may appear and show cause why the structure should not be condemned and ordered repaired or removed.

The city will have to do a title search with an abstractor to find out the owners and lienholders. City officials will have to go to the premises to find out if there are any occupants. This information will be filed with the statement in paragraph 1.

3. The resolution is published once each week for two consecutive weeks in the Tribune. There has to be a 30-day period from the date of the last publication to the hearing date.

4. Within three days of the first publication a certified letter has to be sent to each owner, agent, lienholder, agent or occupant and their last known address. It should be marked “Deliver to addressee only.”

5. On the date of the hearing the owner, agent, lienholders or occupants have the opportunity to appear before the Governing Body and show cause why the structure should not condemned and ordered repaired or demolished.

6. The Governing Body, at that hearing, will also consider any information that learned concerning the Building. Any information that the City has should be submitted either with the statement or at that time. 

7. If the Governing Body finds that the property is unsafe and dangerous, it shall do so by resolution and in the resolution direct that the structure be repaired or removed, whichever is appropriate, and shall further set a time table for the action.

8. If the work is not done the Governing Body will cause the building to be repaired or razed, if dangerous or unsafe structures, or rehabilitated in the case of abandoned structures.

It’s not the “Night of the Living Dead,” nor are the living dead roaming the streets of Great Bend. But, what some call zombie houses can create nightmares for city officials.

“We have them all over the place,” said Stuart Baker, the city’s code enforcement officer. “There are just so many houses.”

Most of these are dilapidated, some are still inhabited, some are under foreclosure and some are all of the above. While not the level of the problems experienced in larger cities, they are still a blight on the community, Baker said.

So, why doesn’t the city just tear them down?

“It’s not cut and dried,” said Baker, whose office falls under the Fire Department. “It’s not that simple.”

The process can drag out for years. 

A matter of cost

If the city steps in to raze a house, it can cost tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, he said. “And, there are always liability issues for the city.”

There can be the cost of title searches, taking bids on the project and the publication of notices. Plus, there are unknowns, such as asbestos, that can double the price to tear a structure down.

“It can get expensive for us,” he said. “We don’t get any of that money back.”

So, for Baker, this is the last resort. “I try to have the property owner demolish them.”

In the cases of homes damaged by fire, a portion of the insurance money can go to the city, Baker said. If the owner fixes the house, the money is returned, but if not, it goes towards work done by the city.

Making a difference

This job can be scary. “I try to make a difference,” he said.

Baker hears gut-wrenching stories of people living in squalor in houses without running water or electricity, holes in the roof, and gaping cracks around windows and in walls. “It’s just awful,” he said.

Many of these houses, no matter how run-down, are still someone’s home. It’s complicated because this can be the fault of the owner/resident, the renter or the landlord.

“Communication is the key,” Baker said. If there is an open dialog between the city and the owner, he is willing to work with the person.

“As long as they are making an effort on it, I am good with that,” he said. As often as possible, he strives to make personal contact with the people involved.

A last resort

There is a procedure he follows, including sending letters and/or contacting the property owners. If that fails to work, he then goes to the City Council to have the property deemed unsafe and dangerous.

“That’s my last step,” he said. There is still an opportunity for owner to step forward and take care of the property, but it becomes much less flexible.

The actual number of houses in this condition is hard to track, he said. They remain unknown unless city personnel happen to see them or a member of the public files a report.

But, Baker said he tries to keep an active case load of between 30-35 properties. Too many more, and it is easy for one to get lost in the shuffle.

In addition, Baker said all they can legally do is look at the outside of the structure. To enter, they have to get an administrative warrant.

Another option

Baker just attended the 25th annual Kansas Association of Code Enforcement conference earlier this month at the Kansas Star Event Center in Mulvane. Dilapidated buildings were on the agenda.

One of the presenters was Safeguard Properties of Valley View, Ohio. Baker said this is one of several companies that contract with banks and lien holders to maintain foreclosed properties.

“These companies want to know about code violations,”  he said. They mow, close-up windows and make sure the properties are safe.