Abandoned properties problem for citizens

By Rozella Hardin
Watauga Drive is a nice, quiet street located at the end of N. Main Street. The five houses located on the short street have a front porch view of the Watauga River. In fact, you can walk across the street, and fish off the river's bank, or, on a summer afternoon, sit in the front yard and watch the many rafters who use the river for sport each day.
"It's a good place to live," said Joyce Bishop, who with her husband, Paul, live on the east end of the street.
However, located next door to the Bishops, is an abandoned home which has become an eyesore on the street, and there is nothing the Bishops nor anyone else on the street can do about it. The house, which is enclosed by a chain-link fence, gives the appearance that someone left quickly, leaving behind children's toys on the carport. A stone angel attached to a bird bath peers above tall grass in the yard -- at least to your knees.
"No one has lived there in about two years. Last year, the previous owner did mow it once or twice, but this summer nothing has been done," Bishop said, expressing fear that the vacated lot may become a haven for rodents and snakes.
"They even left their dog behind, as well as some furniture in the house," said Bishop.
Thomas "Yogi" Bowers, code enforcement officer for the city of Elizabethton, said abandoned houses such as the one at 808 Watauga Drive is a problem those in his office deal with every day. "The problem here is that the previous homeowners are in bankruptcy. The house has been foreclosed on, and the mortgage company in which the house and property are now in the hands of is located hundreds of miles from Elizabethton," he said.
Bowers said he has been in touch with Household Finance, the company that paid the taxes on the property and that apparently has a lien on it. "Their offices are in Florida. The person I contacted there told me they had no one to send out to mow the property or to do maintenance work. I can understand that, since their office is in Florida and the house is located in Elizabethton. However, I did request of them to send a check to my office and we would take care of mowing and cleaning up the property. So far, we have not received a check from them," the law enforcement officer said.
Bowers said this is not unusual when dealing with an out-of-state mortgage company. "We are in the same predicament with an abandoned house located at the corner of Maple and Beech streets. The house and property were abandoned some time ago by the owner. There was a foreclosure, and it took six months to even find a person to talk to about the property," Bowers said. In that case, the property is in the hands of Ditech.com, which is owned by GMAC Mortgage Co. in Costa Mesa, Calif.
"With both the Watauga Drive and Beech Street properties, we have received numerous complaints about the high grass and debris lying around. They are legitimate complaints, and we are addressing them, but it is something that we cannot address in a day or two nor even in a week or two. Sometimes, it takes months," Bowers explained.
However, both Bowers and City Manager Charles Stahl said the two properties will probably be addressed at a building hearing planned in August. "More than likely if the mortgage companies have not taken any steps to clean up the property by then, the houses will be condemned and the properties sold by the city," Stahl said.
"I hate it for the neighbors. It if was left up to me, I'd get someone to cut the grass, and bill the mortgage companies. But, I can't legally do that," said Bowers.
Other properties in violation of city code are the Builders First Source property on W. Elk Avenue and properties in East Side. Bowers said his office handled 128 cases last year, pointing to a drawer full of files as well as several files lying on his desk. "These are active cases we are working on right now," he said.
Bowers said that usually when his office receives a complaint, he personally visits the site and takes photographs. "We make an effort to contact the owner of the property. If we can't do it in person or by phone, we usually send them a registered letter. We try to give the property owner a reasonable time to make repairs or clean up the property -- usually 30 days. If nothing is done, then we take more drastic measures," he explained.
The final step usually is an administrative hearing for condemnation of the property.
"As far as the property on Watauga Drive, we have received numerous complaints from neighbors who live on the street as well as those who live on the street behind the property. We are addressing it. And, if the mortgage company doesn't respond, then the city will step in and take action," Bowers said.
"We do not have that many cases dealing with out-of-town mortgage companies. In most cases, we deal with local people, and the problems are taken care of in a reasonable time. But, in the cases of the property on Watauga Drive and at the corner of Beech and Maple streets, it has become a long drawn-out procedure. But, hopefully, we can soon close the files on these properties. In the case of the Watauga Drive property, I understand we have had a person express an interest in purchasing the property," he said.