Empty homes and abandoned properties pose a challenge for Hamilton County

Empty homes and abandoned properties pose a challenge for Hamilton County

August 30th, 2011 by Ansley Haman in News

The property at 2072 Lakeside Lane in Hixson sits uninhabited like it has for well over year with weeds growing over 5-feet tall obscuring the house from the street on Wednesday morning. Neighbors have called city and county officials which has yielded little improvement in the bank owned property.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

BY THE NUMBERS

Property complaints received by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department

  • 2008 -- 238
  • 2009 -- 336
  • 2010 -- 373
  • 2011 -- 210 (through Aug. 25)

Source: Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department

Barbara and Bobby Burden Sr. who own property next to an overgrown and uninhabited home on Lakeside Lane in Hixson stand at their doorway on Wednesday. They spend much of their year living in Florida but say they are concerned about the vermin that may be living in the overgrown yard and uninhabited house.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

A family abandoned the gray house.

Weeds overtook the grass.

A back door blew open.

Feral cats -- and depending on who you talk to, maybe a raccoon -- began living in the suburban house on Lakeside Lane in Hixson.

The backyard pool filled with rainwater, turning green.

Several neighbors called the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, which sent out an environmentalist to take photos and leave a notice on the door.

That was more than a year ago.

"I think it needs to just be burned down," said Barbara Burden, a retired mail carrier who lives next door to the foreclosed home, which county records show sold in the '90s for a little more than $100,000.

Burden's son, who has an 8-year-old daughter, has called the health department at least twice.

The health department receives hundreds of health and safety complaints about properties each year, said Bonnie Deakins, head of environmental services.

About 80 percent of them are resolved within 30 days, Deakins said. But a few -- like the house on Lakeside Lane -- take longer. Sometimes years.

Complaints about abandoned properties are the most difficult to resolve, said Deakins.

Her office has received calls about 210 properties already this year, she said, and many require her staff to track down who owns the property.

In some cases, the deed lists an owner who claims the bank foreclosed long ago, but the bank says the "foreclosure isn't official," she said. To make matters worse, the mortgages on some properties change hands from bank to bank as many as a dozen times, making it hard to determine who exactly owns them.

"There's so many banks and mortgage companies, some that aren't based anywhere around here," Deakins said. "If it's expensive to correct, [banks will] be less cooperative."

An overgrown and uninhabited home at 9225 Volans Lane in Harrison sits across the street from a neighbor's closely cut yard.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

safety fears

Deakins worries about children or teenagers falling into one of the unmaintained, uncovered pools.

A county environmentalist photographed a dead dog floating in a green pool in a backyard on Glouster Lane, Deakins said.

The county sent Bank of America, which records show owns the Glouster Lane home, a notice in June 2010. The bank covered the pool that November, but the cover has already fallen in, Deakins said.

In a statement, Bank of America said the foreclosure on the home was recently completed and the house is being conveyed to the investor, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Neighbors of an abandoned home at 9225 Volans Road in Harrison worry about fires and trespassers in addition to overgrowth that could hide snakes, a danger to neighborhood kids.

"I worry about somebody getting tired and maybe burning it down or something," said Gordon Calhoun, who takes care of his aunt across the street. "I've seen some weird characters hanging out over there."

Kim Hardin, another nearby resident, said "one match in the grass can light the whole house up." She also said she's noticed a light on in the basement of the house a couple of times.

paper trails

The county began investigating the neighbor's complaints about the Volans Road house in May 2010. Bank of America holds the mortgage and the county sent the bank a 30-day notice to repair the problems.

The next month, after the bank failed to fix the situation, Deakins handed the matter over to the county's citizen-led Health and Safety Board, which tried for almost a year to get the bank to mow the property.

FAST FACT

The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department receives hundreds of health and safety complaints about properties each year, and 80 percent are resolved within 30 days.

In a statement, Bank of America said the Volans Road property is in default and the foreclosure sale has not occurred.

The Health and Safety Board enforces county property standards. County commissioners and the mayor each appoint one representative to the 10-member board.

There's a process the board must follow for property complaints.

First an enforcement officer must find that a property violates property regulations and notify the owner. If an owner cannot be located, a notice of violation can be posted for two consecutive weeks in a local newspaper and in an obvious place on the property. Owners then have 30 days to comply.

If the problem isn't fixed, the board can fine a property owner up to $49.99 a day. If owners don't comply within 30 days, the board may ask the county commission to decide whether the property should be fixed and a lien attached for the cost.

The board recently voted to turn the Volans Road matter over to the Hamilton County Commission.

The banks are "blowing us off," board Chairman Charles Wheaton vented to county commissioners at an Aug. 17 meeting.

Bank of America insisted that it "is committed to maintain properties to neighborhood standards," according to a statement. "When we learn that a property is not being maintained, we take immediate action to remedy the situation."

The bank regularly inspects homes that are in default, both as a service to the neighborhood and to keep the homes in shape to sell, the statement said.

Gordon Calhoun looks across the yard of his home to the overgrown property at 9225 Volans Road in Harrison on Wednesday. A border of weeds several feet wide has been cut around the property but one neighbor says she is afraid of what kind of snakes may be living across the street from her home and possibly endangering her children.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

In the Aug. 17 meeting, Commissioner Tim Boyd asked David Norton from the county attorney's office if the county could seize the abandoned properties, clean them and resell them.

No, Norton said. But commissioners could fix the violations and attach liens to the properties for the cost, he said. They could also wait for those properties with delinquent taxes to go to a tax sale, which takes three years, he said.

Meanwhile, on Lakeside Lane, a bank arranged to have a cover placed on the pool. Someone came by a few times to mow last summer.

But the back door still blows open at times. And this year's weeds reach six feet across most of the lawn.

A neighbor noticed that someone with a lawnmower stopped by the gray house earlier this summer. But the mower didn't even begin the task. The dense weeds were too high.

"They're going to have to have a bush hog," he said.

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