Cover Story: Inspectors on Point

They hold owners responsible, willing or not

May 26, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Building inspector Terry James says owners are responsible for safe housing.

Imagine going to a job eight hours a day, five days week, where the lives and safety of others are in your hands, you're verbally assaulted and you witness extreme poverty and abuse. That's a normal day in the life of a building inspector.

Terry James has been an inspector with the city of Cincinnati Department of Buildings and Inspections for five years. He monitors properties in Walnut Hills, O'Bryonville and parts of Evanston. Last year he had 970 cases to oversee. This year he has 500, still a heavy caseload.

"I try to hit big issues, and I always have to be available to deal with permits, but sometimes I'm overwhelmed with properties that need repair," he says.

James says he enjoys his job, which he describes as part social work.

"My job isn't stressful but it can get hectic, because my department is spread thin," he says.

His day starts at 7 a.m. when he downloads case histories to see if any complaints or permits were submitted from the previous day.

"Fifty percent of my time is spent investigating tenant and community complaints and doing permits," he says.

James prepares a list of houses to visit. He's particularly worried about 1371 Burdett Ave. in East Walnut Hills, whose tenants recently had to be relocated. The plumbing and electric were faulty and the tenants were breathing in thick soot from a clogged chimney.

"I always expect not to be surprised," he says. "But when you're standing there and you realize someone lives there, it's shocking. Some property owners are so disconnected to the property. They look at it like cash flow, not that they're responsible for tenants."

Nothing personal
James talks about the owner of 2527 Ingleside Ave., who wanted to add a driveway. The city denied the request because of zoning requirements. When James drove past the house to make sure no work was being done, he found workers were digging — and a complete renovation was underway in the back of the house. Neither of the projects had permits.

He stops at 1371 Burdett Ave., owned by Roy Goosbey. An old stove and trash litter his driveway. The stairway has a sickening stench of urine and feces. When James says he needs to inspect the plumbing and other violations, Goosbey is defensive.

"There's nothing wrong with the plumbing," he says.

"There is defective plumbing," James replies. "The drain in the kitchen goes uphill, which is not to standards."

The interior is filthy. A soiled mattress leans against a wall, garbage bags full of clothes and trash are strewn everywhere and a formerly pink carpet is black. The kitchen sink is full of dirty dishes. An open box of Cheerios lies next to a can of Raid. The ceiling is crumbling, and pipes under the sink are corroded with dirt and rust.

The backyard resembles a salvage yard. The garage is falling in. Damaged furniture is everywhere. A dog is chained to a fence surrounded by overgrown weeds. A broken refrigerator sits on the back stairs. James goes down the list of violations.

"There's nothing wrong with this house," Goosbey says. "I plan on occupying it soon."

James tells him that's not possible and says he'll post orders on the front door stating the property is unsafe to be occupied.

"This building needs to be vacant," he says. "I have an obvious issue with the outside and inside of this building. The chimney and furnaces need to be repaired, there's trash outside and you need a licensed plumber."

Goosbey becomes angry.

"You're being prejudiced," he says. "Hell, Hitler wasn't that bad, man. I'm taking you to court and I want you to prove everything you said."

As James proceeds to his car, Goosbey pelts him with insults.

"I try not to take it personal," James says. "I just let people vent. This is the third time he's vented."

After James left, Goosbey went to the Department of Building and Inspections and complained to building supervisor Ed Cunningham that the orders he received weren't justified. Cunningham immediately went with Goosbey to investigate the complaint.

"I turned on the kitchen sink and water poured onto the floor," he says. "I concluded the same thing James did."

'Never been inside'
James describes Walnut Hills as "bi-polar" due to the mix of renovation and blighted houses. One of the biggest problems he deals with is owners who abandon their property, leaving the city responsible. He cites 2610 and 3010 Woodburn Ave. as examples. Squatters turned 2610 into a crack house after a fire left it vacant.

"The owner abandoned the property and never paid taxes," James says.

Sold at a sheriff's sale, the property is now being renovated. The owner of 3010 Woodburn Ave. faces a capias for his arrest for building code violations. The property is covered in litter. Windows are broken and the front door is wide open, which poses a dangerous temptation to children.

Clay Becker is the owner of 2710 Woodburn Ave, which has sat vacant for three years, according to James. Convicted of building violations in Hamilton County Municipal Court, Becker was placed on probation and spent several days in jail, James says.

"We tried for a long time to work with Becker to repair the property," he says. "But he never said he was going to do anything. It's not even a factor for him. This guy is so disconnected from the property, he told me he's never been inside the house."

Becker says he has made some improvements on the house but lack of time and money has prevented him from doing more.

James says Becker is under investigation for "house flipping," a kind of fraud in which property is sold at inflated prices with the collusion of lenders and appraisers. Becker confirmed he's been communicating with the FBI but says he's a victim of someone else's fraud.

"I thought it would be a good investment," he says. "I almost lost everything because of the situation I'm in. I live in a dirty garage because I have to pay $12,000 a month in mortgage payments on the properties I own."

Lack of funds wouldn't seem to be an issue for the owners of some blighted properties. James points to John Yeager, the owner of 1111 E. McMillan Ave. Yeager began selling the building in several different land contracts, but the building was unsafe for habitation, James says.

"Here's a guy that owns two houses in Indian Hill, but he's a terrible landlord," James says. "The house has faulty plumbing and is full of fire hazards, including blocked emergency exits."

William Sherman, an attorney, is trustee for the property.

"I'm trying to find someone to purchase the property," he says. "We actually sold the property twice, but both parties defaulted."

'A herculean task'
If a homeowner fails to comply with repair orders, James sends the case to a hearing to determine if it can be resolved or if criminal charges should be filed. If no resolution occurs, the case is sent to Municipal Judge Guy Guckenberger, who handles the housing docket.

"Guckenberger knows most of the zoning and code laws," James says. "Inspectors have to bring him a solid case."

On May 10 Guckenberger heard the case of Kelvin Davis, who owns 2623 Hackberry Ave. in Walnut Hills. The lot has sat vacant for 25 to 30 years, according to James. On Dec. 11, 2002, Davis was ordered to remove a crumbling retaining wall.

Davis tells the judge he applied for a permit to remove the wall.

"Your honor, I have started tearing down the wall," he says.

Staring at a photo, Guckenberger asks how he's doing it.

"I'm using a sledgehammer and doing it a little at a time," Davis says.

"This concrete wall looks like it's 10 inches thick," Guckenberger replies.

"It's 8 inches thick, your honor," Davis says.

"Well, how many years will this take?" Guckenberger asks.

"It will only take two to three weeks," Davis says.

James interjects.

"Your honor, what's evolving here is a hazardous issue, the way he's tearing the wall down," James says. "The neighbor downhill is upset because water is coming down on his property and cracking the concrete. This is a herculean task for one man to do."

"I would hire someone if I could afford it," Davis says.

"What are we going to do here?" Guckenberger asks. "With ownership comes responsibility. Why not sell the property?"

Davis says he tried.

"I put it on the market, but I didn't get any real bids," he says.

Guckenberger asks for Davis' plea.

"Not guilty," he says.

Guckenberger schedules a jury trial and suggests Davis hire a lawyer. If found guilty, he faces six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

James says some property owners don't understand that his priority is decent, safe and sanitary housing.

James inspected 11 buildings on May 6. Five of them had few problems and were in the process of being rehabbed.

He points to 3005 Hackberry Ave. as a good example of neighborhood revitalization. The owner, a retired letter carrier, took several years to repair the building; today the property is fully renovated and rented.

"A little maintenance goes a long way, and I often send homeowners letters thanking them for maintaining their property," James says. ©