Cedar Rapids' abandoned homes the next challenge

Some worried city is jeopardizing neighborhoods

Rick Smith
Published: February 14 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:38 am in

CEDAR RAPIDS ó City Hall has stood with Matthew 25 as the not-for-profitís innovative neighborhood-rebuilding efforts have helped core neighborhoods hit hard by the Flood of 2008 get back on their feet.

But these days, it is not all affection.

Instead, Clint Twedt-Ball, Matthew 25ís executive director, is worried that the city is leaving behind a litter of empty and/or abandoned houses and, in the process, jeopardizing the scores of millions of dollars in federal funds that the city has invested to renovate some homes, buy out and demolish other houses and provide incentives for new homes in the cityís flood-hit neighborhoods.

Some of that city support has helped Matthew 25 in its successful Block by Block program and is now helping the organization create the Ellis Urban Village along a few of the blocks in the Time Check Neighborhood.

The village idea, well-liked by City Hall, is using public and private support to renovate flood-damaged homes, to build new houses to help replace what was lost in the flood and to bring to life an urban farm on now-vacant lots too flood-prone to build on.

Twedt-Ball is aiming his displeasure ó which is one example of what city officials concede is a larger problem in the city ó at two vacant, abandoned homes in the middle of Matthew 25ís village project. The interior of both has been untouched since the flood, he said.

"Itís still like everything was picked up by the flood, spun around and dropped down on the floor," Twedt-Ball said of the house at 605 H Ave. NW, which features broken windows and an unlocked front door.

A second house at 618 G Ave. NW has cats and birds coming in and out of open second-floor windows, though the first-floor windows are bordered up to give the impression that someone has done some renovation inside.

Others who have invested in their homes, often with some public support or some assistance from Matthew 25, are living in homes in proximity to the two offending ones.

"They both smell like the flood," Twedt-Ball said. "Theyíre disgusting. I donít think anybody should have to live in a home next to homes like that."

By Twedt-Ballís calculation, these two abandoned eyesores are on blocks where he estimated that $400,000 has been spent on renovation by Matthew 25ís Block by Block program and by Habitat for Humanity.

At the same time, the city is providing incentives via federal funds for two flood-recovery replacement houses just up the street from 605 H Ave. NW and has provided Matthew 25 with one buyout house for renovation next to the house at 618 G Ave. NW, plus two vacant lots for the organizationís urban farm.

In addition, across the street from the G Avenue NW house is a former school district warehouse which the not-for-profit Neighborhood Development Corp. of Cedar Rapids is converting into 29 apartments, having secured $2.16 million in federal support.

Twedt-Ball, a Methodist minister, reserves his anger for the parties who are supposed to have responsibility for the properties, however murky the ownership might actually be.

Friends† of his in New York City went to a Wall Street office of the deed holder of the H Avenue NW house, he said, but to no avail.

Kevin Ciabatti, the director of the cityís Building Services Division, said he understands Twedt-Ballís frustration, which he said is not going unnoticed.

Ciabatti and Joe OíHern, the head of the cityís flood-recovery effort and more recently the cityís executive administrator for development services, said the city is in the process of reviewing ordinances in some 20 other cities to see how they deal with vacant or abandoned properties.

One idea, OíHern said, is to create a registry of vacant properties so the city knows what is out there. Some cities then attach fees of different sorts to the properties for a variety of reasons, he said.

Ciabatti said his office is aware of the two properties that Twedt-Ball is upset about. In fact, the city put the boards on the windows at 618 G Ave. NW as part of an "emergency secure" policy after the property owner was notified to do so and did not.

He said the house at 605 H Ave. NW is facing a final compliance inspection before the city heads to court.

Even so, the court process can be a lengthy one before a dilapidated, abandoned property gets the courtís approval for demolition, OíHern noted.

He said the problem of vacant homes in flood-hit neighborhoods should be viewed in the context of the enormity of the cityís flood-recovery buyout program, which has seen the purchase of some 1,300 properties, most of which have been demolished. He said about 32 vacant houses still standing are in the buyout program and will be demolished.

In fact, OíHern said the large number of demolitions probably has made what is still standing and vacant more visible than they otherwise might be.

At the same time, he said the city isnít entirely sure how many flood-damaged homes are vacant and/or abandoned.

Within the last year, the city conducted a "windshield survey" to look at the exteriors of 200 or so flood-damaged houses that had been in the cityís buyout program and opted out of it. Of those, 50 to 55 had exterior codes violations of one sort or another, he said.

Some of the other 150, no doubt, had been renovated and had people living in them, he said.

However, he said there is another group of flood-damaged homes with owners who never applied for the buyout program. Thatís the case with both houses for which Matthew 25ís Twedt-Ball wants some action, Ciabatti said.

OíHern said the city reached out a number of times to contact owners of all flood-damaged properties in a variety of ways, including direct mail, but some never responded, he said.

Vacant properties, he added, are not just in flood-hit neighborhoods in the city.

"They could run from anything from a house for sale to one thatís not had anyone in it for decades," OíHern said. "We donít really have any way of really tracking that because the cityís current regulations (say) if a property doesnít have any apparent ordinance violations, itís not in violation of any city ordinances.

"And so it can sit there vacant."

Linda Seger, president of the Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association in a part of the city where much was lost to the 2008 flood and much has been rebuilt, said Ciabatti has asked her just this week to sit on a committee to discuss the vacant house issue.

Seger, who lives on Eighth Street NW, said she routinely drives through her neighborhood and takes note of homes that are vacant, abandoned "or are being illegally used by vagrants."

"You would think almost six years after the flood, we would be free of most of that," she said. "But unfortunately many who intended to rebuild have fallen on hard times or just lack the desire to upgrade the conditions of these homes.

"Now (those houses) are a danger and a threat to those who have done such a good job of caring for their properties."

Beth DeBoom, president of Save CR Heritage, this week won City Council approval to acquire a flood-damaged buyout home in New Bohemia that some had viewed as vacant structure worthy of demolition. She intends to renovate it.

DeBoom said the city can be too quick to condemn properties, but at the same time, she said she has found city officials are willing to work with property owners who make an effort to stabilize a property.

In some instances, she said some owners of vacant properties are holding them as is, waiting for "some future windfall" as investment occurs around them, raising the sale value.

"In those cases, the owner doesnít care about the building or the neighbors, only the land," DeBoom said.

She said stiff fines from the city could help ensure†that owners of vacant properties secure them, so they donít become invitations to vagrants and wild animals or targets for fire.

Matthew 25ís Twedt-Ball said he lives on a tree-lined street near Mount Mercy University where one vacant property on the street instantly becomes "an unacceptable eyesore." A vacant home raises the anxiety of other homeowners, who worry that the value of their homes and the neighborhood might start to decline.

"Once you shift that psychological mindset from value and opportunity to worry and neglect, a downward spiral can accelerate," he said.

Matthew 25 and its Block by Block program, he said, have succeeded in working with the city to shift momentum in a positive direction on some 25 flood-hit blocks. But that has not been the case in parts of the 600 blocks of G and H avenues NW where Twedt-Ball wants the city to accelerate its effort to take on two abandoned houses.

"Unfortunately this momentum on these blocks has been stymied by laws, systems and institutions that freeze blight in place for years," Twedt-Ball said.

"At a very basic level, these slow-moving systems hurt the kids we care about in these neighborhoods. They create danger zones, prevent the kids from having strong neighbors and erode the tax base for their schools."

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