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Archive for Sunday, September 28, 1997

GETTING HOUSING CODES INTO SHAPE

September 28, 1997

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City leaders plan to mull property-maintenance issues next month.

A collapsed roof. Walls decimated by termites. An eroding foundation.

With years of neglect and months of citations from city building inspectors behind it, a vacant home at 1309 N.J. offers a real-life example of what can happen to a property -- and neighborhood -- when it receives little or no maintenance.

Homes and yards become blighted. Surrounding property values drop. Crime moves in.

"It's bad for everybody," said Adi Dokan, who is rebuilding a home next door, at 1315 N.J. "The only people it's good for are the crack heads. It gives them a place to smoke their dope."

But today, after years of trying to fight the problems themselves, property owners and neighborhood leaders are looking to city hall to help prevent properties from falling into disrepair in the first place.

Next month, Lawrence city commissioners will consider a report outlining possible changes to housing and safety codes, changes that would reduce the need for ordering homes to be demolished. Demolition currently is the last resort for city officials who otherwise can't convince property owners to repair or maintain their homes.

Commissioner John Nalbandian wants to change that. It could mean requiring property owners to repair leaking roofs, or even ensure that exterior walls remain painted.

Whatever form the city's action takes, he said, something needs to be done.

"We don't have a way to tell people they need to fix up their properties," Nalbandian said. "We need a tool to tell them, `You need to fix this up. We're not going to let you tear this down.' "

City building inspectors in recent months have recommended to the commission that several dilapidated homes, after years of neglect, be demolished. Nearby residents and preservationists have opposed many of the demolitions, because allowing the homes to be torn down could lead to construction of new apartments. Such a move, they say, could further erode the single-family character of residential areas.

Nalbandian fears that without the city's help, fragile neighborhoods such as East Lawrence will continue to fall prey to developers and property owners who have little desire to preserve existing homes, a process also known as "demolition by neglect."

The city needs to find ways to encourage people to invest in their properties -- even using federal housing grants, if necessary -- so that everyone benefits in the end, he said.

"If you want to live in a neighborhood, you've got to help build that neighborhood," Nalbandian said. "You just can't let that property go, especially not when you intend to let it go so the city will force you to tear it down."

Just how to build up property-maintenance regulations remains unclear.

A `major policy step'

Next month, city staffers plan to unveil a study of possibilities for addressing several related issues, ranging from preservation of historic areas to instituting minimum standards for property maintenance.

Currently, the city has a long list of rules, regulations and ordinances calling for various levels of property maintenance. But aside from the city's weed ordinance -- which prohibits plants other than grass and trees from growing taller than 12 inches -- the rules offer little guidance.

Once a property gets in bad enough shape to become a threat to the general public's health and safety, the city may order that it be repaired or demolished. But the city has little control before it gets to that point.

"There's nothing now that says you have to have your house painted, or you need to fix your leaking roof, or that you can't have a porch that's slumping," City Manager Mike Wildgen said. "We've never gone to that level. It's a major policy step."

Harold Shephard, who owns the condemned home at 1309 N.J., doesn't want the city meddling in his rental business. He's already fighting the city's order to raze 1309 N.J., a property he wants to renovate.

He would welcome a city program to help finance voluntary repairs for low-income homes, but giving building inspectors more power to condemn properties or order repairs could lead to trouble, Shephard said.

"I don't think a man should have to paint his house unless he wants to," Shephard said. "That's his right. That's his constitutional right as an owner. This country is built on ownership."

Time for change?

Other communities, however, have regulated the conditions of properties. Olathe's property maintenance ordinance sets guidelines for when a home's exterior must be painted. Others require annual inspections for rental properties before they can be leased again.

K.T. Walsh, vice president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, understands that Kansas has long been a "property rights" state. But she's also tired of seeing East Lawrence homes erode in the hands of property owners who refuse to invest money in their properties.

"I respect the American individual's rights to own property, but that same individual has responsibilities to their community," said Walsh, who is active in neighborhood affairs. "They can choose to go live in the desert, where no one will see them, no one will drive past and no one will have to look at their property.

"Here, we all interact and care about our neighbors. We need to get together as a community and decide that there are minimum standards we will ask for. People must have solid roofs over their heads, and solid foundations under their feet."

Next week, residents in the 1300, 1400 and 1500 blocks of New York Street plan to get together for a "Keep the Neighborhood Safe" meeting, said Mike Cannon, 1312 N.Y.

The house at 1309 N.J. -- just across the alley -- is a symptom of problems that are difficult to remove, he said.

"With poverty comes problems," said Cannon, who manages about 100 rental properties in town. "We're sick and tired of seeing gang bangers driving two-deep up and down our block. If you bring up the property values, that brings up the household incomes because of the increased rents. Then the undesirables wouldn't be able to afford to live here."

Requiring people to keep up their properties would be a first step toward community preservation, he said.

"It's up to the elected officials," Cannon said. "That's where it's got to start."

Nalbandian knows the road toward instituting new standards -- or even heightening enforcement of existing ones -- could prove difficult. But he's convinced that changes need to occur, because the recent spate of demolition orders indicate a problem that needs to be solved.

"The No. 1 factor affecting the confidence and pride people have in their neighborhoods is housing, and people taking take of their properties," Nalbandian said. "When properties are neglected, it's just kind of an uphill battle for the rest of the residents who are trying to take care of what they have."

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