Twenty-two unsafe structures in the inner city of Hopkinsville are in the process of being demolished, according to Community Development Services Director Steve Bourne, and Wednesday, the Inner City Residential Enterprise Zone Advisory Committee voted to designate an additional $185,000 from its budget to demolish 36 more. The recommendation will be sent to Hopkinsville City Council for an official vote at its next meeting.
"This is a continuation of a process we implemented over a year ago," Bourne said Friday. "In essence, we're looking at over 55 to 60 structures that we're going through the process of tearing down."
Bourne said the goal is to remove unsafe structures in the inner city to create clean and safe neighborhoods and to create lots of property that developers want to build on.
As far as Wednesday's vote to reallot funds in the Inner City REZ budget for demolition, three members of the 12-person Inner City REZ Committee voted no, and one owner of a property on the demolition list believes he was targeted by code enforcement.
First, how does a property get on the demolition list?
The Inner-City REZ Advisory Committee was formed in 2006 by a vote of city council for the purpose of recommending the demolition of abandoned housing and the formation of neighborhood associations in four Residential Enterprise Zone (REZ) districts -- Attucks/Eastside, Canton Pike, Durrett Avenue and Westside.
According to the city website, code enforcement officers take complaints from local residents about abandoned properties and also sweep the city periodically to find unsafe structures. When a structure is deemed unsafe by a local code enforcement officer, the process toward remedying the issues or demolishing the structure begins.
Bourne said the code enforcement team uses a list of items in the Basic Property Maintenance Code to determine if a structure is inhabitable. Those standards relate to the condition of the roof, foundation, electrical wiring and plumbing.
If the structure does not meet those standards, code enforcement officers can deem the structure unsafe for human habitation.
"As we declare it unsafe, the property is posted, the notice is placed in the paper and the owner is given notice of a public hearing," Bourne said. "Then they have the right to come before the Code Enforcement Board and explain their case or request time to demolish it themselves or rehabilitate it."
One owner questions the process
That process happened at 1201 Broad Street, which is one of 36 properties set to be demolished soon. Its owner, Chris McKee, inherited the property in 2006 when his father died and said he's been working on the property as he has the time and money.
"When I first got the property, it was still needing some work but the inside was intact," McKee said. "But before I could get everything secured, someone came in and vandalized the whole inside -- knocked holes in the walls and in the ceiling to find the wiring inside of it -- so I went on inside and just stripped it."
McKee, who works on flooring in houses, said he stripped it and boarded up the windows because he planned to start from scratch. Aside from the inside being gutted and vacant, the siding is chipped and there's also a slight bend in a post on the front porch where the code enforcement officer tacked the stop work order earlier this month.
"By me being in construction pretty much all my life with my father and his family, and I do flooring now, I can tell when a structure is too far gone or is still saveable," McKee said. "The bones for this one were still there."
McKee believes his property was picked out by the code enforcement officer among a number of other houses that need work surrounding it. McKee said there are houses within walking distance of his that should have been torn down, but he has never seen citations on those.
According to the demolition list acquired by the New Era through open records, 1203 and 1204 Broad Street are also set to be demolished. Those two are owned by Donte Waddell, and one has already been torn down.
McKee has spoken out against the city's process of acquiring land in the past and believes that why his property is on the list and not others.
According to New Era archives, McKee owned some property where the new Joe Mumford Park is being built. However, the city ultimately acquired the land for that project from the group of owners who wouldn't sell through a lawsuit and won based on eminent domain.
Bourne said code enforcement officers don't know who owns a property when they issue a citation, so he refuted that McKee was targeted.
"We stay out of that completely," Bourne said. "We don't give special consideration to who owns it."
Peter Wood, procedural service coordinator for CDS, said McKee was given the proper time to get permits to work on the property but didn't. McKee said he didn't think he needed a permit to install windows and a door.
"He came to the hearings and wanted to repair the house, and the (Code Enforcement) board gave him 90 days," Wood explained. "You have 45 days of that 90 days to come in and get a work permit -- because most work is going to be structural and you're going to need a permit -- then you have the total 90 days to get it complete, and he didn't do anything until just before we were bidding these out in the paper."
Bourne said the property would have been demolished a long time ago, but CDS ran out of money in its demolition budget.
"We didn't have the money, that's why the Inner City REZ voted to allot additional money to tear these houses down," Bourne said. "We're not giving people a year (to fix up the property), and his 90 days expired on him."
McKee said he has talked to a lawyer in an effort to stop the demolition.
"A lot of that stuff they act like they tell people, but they don't," McKee said. "When I tried to get the permit, I was told that he couldn't get one. ... I have a lawyer looking into it, but right now they have stopped me from working on it. I could have had the roof and the siding already done."
Committee members dissent more funds
Although the vote to allot more money for demolitions carried at the latest Inner City REZ meeting, three committee members voted no.
One of those members, Bernard Standard, said in a phone interview Friday that he wanted more information before suggesting more money be allotted for demolition of property.
"It was too much information for me to digest at the last minute," he said. "At the end, it came to be a total of $209,000, so what are we doing with the rest of it? (CDS) said there are more pieces in the process of being demolished, and I wasn't very comfortable with that. ... I wanted more time to digest what is going to be done."
Standard, director of the Hopkinsville Human Rights Commission, said the additional funds for demolitions was moved from a few line items in the Inner City REZ budget. For instance, $3,700 was moved from a graffiti account that was just sitting there, he said.
Standard, who has served on the Inner City REZ committee since its inception, said he is not against demolitions but wants to know that just as much effort is going into revitalizing the inner city.
"I think the other side of that is as we begin to try to clean up, I believe we need to restore," he said. "Now you're going to have a vacant lot that's just sitting there and has to be maintained. A lot of these (lots) I wonder what's the future of them? A lot of them are small lots that you can't put anything there, and to revitalize, you want to put something else there to build the tax base, but if you have a small vacant lot, that you can't do anything with, that's going to be hard."
What's the plan
If the reallocation of funds is approved by city council, Bourne said demolition of these property could happen in the next three to four months, depending on the how quickly the contractors can get to them.
Bids went out Aug. 13, and the demolition work will be divvied among four contractors, East Construction, Site Works LLC, Outlaw Contracting and TA Gaddis Services. East Construction got the bulk of the job.
Several structures on the list have already been demolished; however, Wood said the owners who demolished them left behind rubble that must be cleared. Each demolition could cost several thousand dollars.
Once the properties are demolished, the lots will be cleared and the property owner will be issued a lien for the cost of the demolition and the cost for maintaining the land, such as mowing. If the owners don't pay the liens, the property could be seized through the new Mass Foreclosure Committee and then auctioned off or added to the Hopkinsville-Christian County Landbank.
Bourne said the landbank authority seeks groups of vacant lots that might attract developers. Like Standard, Bourne acknowledged that small, vacant lots are harder to sell.
"Unfortunately, majority of these are in the inner city and they are on small lots," Bourne said. "A smaller lot is a difficult piece of property to develop, so you're trying to cobble properties together to make a larger lot to make it more appealing for someone to come and build on."
One example of that being successful is a group of new townhouses near East Seventh and Brown streets.
An example of that not working is the hundreds of vacant lots the city now mows on a recurring basis.
"We've got to get the city out from mowing (these properties) and to someone to buy it," Bourne said.
Standard said he wants to make sure the process of reselling these properties is equitable to the people who live in the inner city, which is predominately African-American.
"The idea that this is mostly minority property that we're taking and allowing the majority to purchase it is what I'm questioning," Standard said. He offered the idea of giving the adjacent property owner first dibs on the vacant land. "They may have more interest in it, especially if (a developer) can't build on it."
Bourne said the city will not be taking property from the owners unless they don't pay the liens from the demolition and it goes into the mass foreclosure pool.
"We're not interested in tearing these houses down ourselves," Bourne said. "We want the property owners to take on the responsibility to tear it down themselves, and that means not just tearing down the wood structure but taking out the foundation and making it a lot that can be developed."
Bourne said the ultimate decision will be for city council to decide. The next meeting is Sept. 3.
Reach Zirconia Alleyne at 270-887-3243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.