Two blocks from Lake Calhoun, neighbors say they've endured a decaying eyesore for 20 years, and mystery occupants are the last straw
Ruth Elaine Hane is frustrated. She and her husband, Jay Joyner, have lived next door to a rundown eyesore of a house that stands like a shadow next to their renovated stucco home. Worse: except for occasional suspicious activity, the house is left unoccupied.
If you peer inside the front porch, you'll see junk piled knee high. In the backyard, six lawn mowers stand idle amid tall grass and weeds, piles of pigeon droppings, decaying phone books, old bikes and doors. The house's siding looks relatively new, but paint peels off aging trim, rain-worn gray plywood covers the busted windows, and grass grows 20 feet up in a third-story rain trough.
Except for the cooing of a pigeon flock that roosts in the house's busted eves, the place is silent.
You might expect to find this type of problem in the proverbial inner city - but just two blocks from Lake Calhoun's east shore?
What's even more curious is that, according to Hane and Joyner, the property has been in a severe state of neglect the entire 20 years they've lived next door.
“These kind of folks don't have to comply because they're complacent,” Hane said. “They don't respond and people finally just give up. Every summer, I start with the idea, I'm not going through another winter shoveling walks, and worrying about people falling, chasing kids out of the garage, out of the back entry, out of the porch to worry about drug dealers and people coming all hours of day and night.
“I end up in the same position that [the city] can't do anything, because [the owners] minimally comply.”
The house may be empty, but it's neither officially vacant nor condemned. At various times in the recent past, however, the property has been officially registered as vacant, or in tax forfeiture, or rented or condemned, according to city records.
One constant is that its owner, Jim Daugherty, is perpetually in violation of city code. Citations have been issued in the past few years for renting without a license, for not being registered to the right person, for tires, trash and appliances in the yard, tall grass and overgrown shrubs, abandoned cars, garage left open, house left open and unsecured, broken windows, and with repairs needed on the siding, trim and roof.
Daugherty has no listed phone number and could not be reached; a friend and advisor, Nick Kakos, said the property owner is “floating.”
Daugherty is in a tax payback program to avoid forfeiture on the nonhomestead East Calhoun property and is currently meeting obligations.
Over the last several decades, the property passed from Daugherty's deceased grandmother to his father, and then to Daugherty. According to Hane, Jim Daugherty stopped living there shortly after his father died about four years ago. A handyman said to be a friend comes over and works on the house, occasionally mowing the lawn or bringing inspections violations up to code. Other than he, it's not clear to neighbors who should be coming and going.
“I wish he'd sell it. I'm frustrated with him. We'd really like to have a real neighbor living in it,” Mary Ellen Foster said.
She and Ruth Brooker have been next-door neighbors since 1999.
Some of their complaints seem almost comical: the year they moved in, a family of raccoons lived under a canoe in Daugherty's backyard. When the grass is mowed - which isn't often - it has frequently been at 11 p.m. Or the garage roof has been repaired at midnight. A few months ago, a man drove a van up onto Foster's front sidewalk and ripped out a chunk of her picket fence on his way to park in the yard, Foster said.
“My biggest problem is that I worry about - you never know, you see there's lights on in there,” she noted. “Nobody's living there permanently, but he does have people that stay there or something. We have no idea who it is. You can't really tell if it's a legal person or not - this is the problem. If it were a boarded up house or something, where it can't be inhabited, then it's one thing. But it's apparently not in that category.”
Last March, Brooker observed a man she didn't recognize shoveling the sidewalk. The man then took a ladder from the front porch and proceeded to climb into a back window. When she asked him what he was doing there, he replied it was none of her business.
These inconveniences suffered over time are not, in fact, trifling. For instance, because the gutters and downspouts on the three-story house are not maintained, Hane and Joyner have had to install a drain field to accommodate the run-off from both Daugherty's house and their own to avoid getting water in their basement during heavy rains.
Hane says they even built their entire addition and remodel to face away from the house. “The architects said, ‘turn your backs on it - if you can't solve it, just look away.' It's not just a minor inconvenience. It affects our property, it's not safe and I'm constantly checking.”
Others less bothered
Other neighbors are less concerned. Don McPherson lives directly across the street and says he has no problem with the situation, but he admits it would be nice if someone lived there and took care of it. Because of a quirk in how the streets were laid out, the house features perhaps the only lake view on the block, and McPherson has told the owner he'd like to buy it. Although the county Web site lists the estimated market value at $363,000, McPherson believes it would take at least $100,000 to fix the house's infrastructure.
Kakos, who has lived across the street since 1970, says he is not at all concerned. He says that Daugherty knows whoever is going inside and that the reason the owner leaves the house vacant is that it “needs a lot of work and requires funding.”
As next-door neighbors, though, Hane, Joyner, Foster and Brooker would seem to be the ones most affected. Their only recourses have been to call city inspections or police, and elevating the issue to their City Councilmember, Dan Niziolek (Ward 10).
On June 3, Ruth Elaine Hane decided to elevate the issue. She aired her concerns about drug activity and squatters at an East Calhoun Community Organization (ECCO) meeting. At the following ECCO board meeting in July, Niziolek reported back simply that the house is in the tax payback program and is occupied.
The house, however, isn't occupied. And according to Kellie Jones, administrative analyst with the city's problem properties unit, the owner doesn't have a license to rent, so legally, no one but the owner (or family members) should be residing there. In July, Jones forwarded the issue to a complaint intake person and a supervisor, and said it was on its way to a housing inspector.
The plot thickens
Nothing much seemed to happen for a while, except a city notice was posted on the front door, stating that the owner did not have a license to rent.
Then, in late October, Thomas Deegan, manager of the city's problem properties unit, got involved after Councilmember Sandra Colvin Roy (Ward 12) called him about a similar problem in a Lake Nokomis neighborhood.
It turns out that Daugherty is listed as the owner of that property, too.
Deegan began researching whether Daugherty actually owns both properties, where he is living, and what steps will be taken to resolve external code violations. If the issues are not resolved, the process of condemning the house begins. Once a house is condemned, city officials are permitted to enter the premises for further assessment.
What many people don't realize is how much staff and services to deal with these types of properties cost the city. “Taxpayers are losing huge money,” Deegan said. “These properties are appreciating thousands of dollars in value every year, and the owners don't have to do anything to them.”
Some of the systems have already been changed, he says, and other changes are in the works to reduce the cost to taxpayers.
The problem properties unit is a relatively new unit at the city's inspections division; properties are referred that pose serious safety or livability issues. As it stands, the unit has far worse cases on its hands than the dilapidated East Calhoun house. And because the city has recently revamped the process for rental licensing inspections, resources have been directed away from day-to-day complaints in order to cycle through all the rental properties in a five-year period instead of the previous 16-year period.
“It's hard to discern what the real problems are,” Jones said. “And how do we manage the ones that are really serious for people who live next door to them, but maybe don't measure up in terms of actual statistical numbers.”
The house received several complaints in 2002. However, the problem properties unit evaluates by using the most current activity. In 2004, police received no calls on the property, and there have been three made so far this year. Only two housing code violations were recorded in 2004 and none in 2005.
Jones says that the more neighbors continue to report things, the more may eventually be done because the number of complaints is an important factor in determining which cases receive priority.
Understandably, over the years, Daugherty's neighbors have become fatigued with calling.
In the meantime, Daugherty's friend Kakos indicated that one secret may yet be revealed. “There may be some action pending,” he said cryptically. “It may resolve and it's probably not going to happen real quick, either, but I think there is some action being considered.”
Kakos wouldn't comment further, except to say that this action might alleviate neighbors' concerns.