Saturday, March 6, 2004

Inspectors go slumming for dilapidated houses

Dayton gets tough with absentee owners

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Robin Allen (right), a Dayton building department citation officer, and volunteer Denise Ashford inspect a shabby building on Fifth Street.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/PATRICK REDDY
DAYTON, Ky. - A Jeep Cherokee rolls up to a shotgun house on Fourth Street. The sound of the doors popping open and the arrival of Robin Allen and Denise Ashford causes a group of pigeons to scatter from the street. Many fly into a hole in the eaves of the house.

Weeds tower above the chain-link fence. Junk cars are parked bumper-to-bumper in the driveway. A tattered American flag flies upside down from a rusting flagpole - the international symbol of distress.

"This house really is in distress," said Ashford as she snapped a photograph of it. "It is a shame this house has been allowed to deteriorate into this condition."

It was a recent weekday, and the BBB Team was on a roll.

"We prefer to think of ourselves as the Blonde Beauties of Blight," Ashford said, but some have used another word.

Allen and Ashford are the public face of a growing grass-roots effort to clean up blighted homes in this city. It includes fining homeowners, lobbying Frankfort for tougher legislation to enforce blight laws and getting city workers and residents to volunteer their time.

In the last two years, the city has gone from collecting $400 in fines for blighted properties to more than $7,000 this fiscal year. Of the city's 2,401 housing units, city officials estimate about 500, or 20.8 percent, are blighted. Officials say 20 to 30 homes are on the verge of being condemned by the city.

City Administrator Gary Scott says the problem is only aggravated by inattentive landlords. According to the U.S. Census, 866, or 39.4 percent, of the city's homes are rented. That's above the national average.

Scott is the second facet of Dayton's attack on blight.

Frustrated by owners avoiding the fines by not picking up their registered mail, Scott spends Sundays tracking down the homeowners. He said these Sunday outings often take him to Northern Kentucky's more affluent bedroom communities of Fort Thomas, Fort Mitchell and Edgewood.

"That's where some of our absentee landlords live," said Scott. "They think I'm a police officer because my city car looks like an unmarked police cruiser."

He has lobbied representatives Joe Fischer, R-Fort Thomas, and Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, to allow code enforcement officials to issue citations by posting a notice on the door of the premises.

A House bill to do that is in the local government committee of the legislature.

Ashford volunteers to help Allen, the city citation officer, to help issue the fines.

"I do it for the betterment of the city," said Ashford, whose husband sits on city council. "We have to clean up our own image."

Scott said it just makes economic sense.

"With all the development, a blind man could see our city is the next place to see riverfront development. When the developers do arrive with their money, we want to look good."


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