The sign posted on a dilapidated and unoccupied house on East Myrtle Avenue is a small part of Johnson City’s overall strategy to locate and deal with unsightly and unsafe structures.
It’s not just a warning to property owners whose home or building has become an eyesore and possible danger to others, it also is an alert to neighbors and passers-by who may know how to contact the person ultimately responsible.
Not that big a deal?
Consider that Johnson City can level your home or building should it be deemed detrimental to the safety, health, morals or welfare of the community. Property owners need not blatantly rob or steal to incur the wrath of city housing codes. Doing nothing at all is what most times sets the penalty clock ticking.
“Property owners have a chance to remedy the situation,” said Public Works Director Phil Pindzola. “But if you’re among the absentee owners or slumlords who refuse to cooperate, the cost will be coming out of your pocket sooner or later.”
There currently are 37 structures within the city limits that have been identified as unfit for habitation, and Pindzola’s strategy includes targeting seven sections of Johnson City, beginning with the inner-city and working outward.
“From five to seven dilapidated structures will be presented for review each month to the city’s Board of Dwelling Standards and Review,” he said. “Cases will be reviewed, and it will be determined if the owner can make repairs, or if the structure should be demolished. Once unoccupied structures have been dealt with, the city will move on to unoccupied structures, including sheds.”
From 2004 to 2010, 158 structures were reviewed for demolition by the board. Of those, 68 were repaired by owners, 57 were demolished by owners and 36 were demolished by the city.
Pindzola said he’s been in a home where “I had to hold my breath,” and another in which “snakes were crawling on the ceiling.”
Under Pindzola’s oversight, two code enforcement employees handle overgrown yards and lots, the accumulation of junk and trash and problems with animals. Three inspectors handle all new construction, including site and plan review, and one person deals with blighted or dilapidated structures.
Of course, there is a process that involves locating and notifying property owners so they have a chance to remedy the situation.
In general, the city will send a notice to the owner of record within 10 days of the finding. Property owners are entitled to a hearing. However, should the owner refuse to address the situation, Pindzola can order the condition to be remedied or removed, and the expense to the city will be reimbursed through a lien on the property. Costs incurred are subject to the same penalty and interest as delinquent property taxes.
“After we get through all the notification procedures and can’t find them or get them to court, we can put a lien on the property to pay for the cost of cleanup or demolition,” he said. “The city can sell the materials and credit the proceeds against the cost, and any balance is put in Chancery Court where it is disbursed to the party that’s entitled to it.”
He said the worst problems are not owner-occupied but rental houses, and once the “decay” in these houses begins then social issues become associated with it, like drugs or prostitution.
Pindzola also has talked about how some parents buy a property for their child attending East Tennessee State University then fail to properly maintain it. The son or daughter will manage the property and make the mortgage payment for the parent by renting out other bedrooms in the house, but they’ll spend the bare minimum on the property and depend on that rent check.
The parents do it hoping the property will appreciate, he said. The parent is holding the deed, but the upkeep goes by the wayside. And it’s not that all the parents live far away — many live right here in Johnson City, he added.
If there’s reason to believe it would take more than 50 percent of the property’s value to repair the structure, then codes enforcement recommends that it go to the board for consideration.