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For Smoketown Retiree, Metro Code Violations May Lead To Eviction

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J. Tyler Franklin
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Mary Campbell steps over a pile of old bricks and squeezes into a hallway heaped with the remnants of a long life — burnt out lamps, discarded boxes, busted chairs.

She points down the hall, past broken appliances and shelves caked in cobwebs, to a crumbled section of ceiling blackened by mold and water damage. The roof above this spot collapsed about a year ago, she says.

That's just one of the problems in Campbell's Smoketown home. Gutters have fallen. Windows are broken. There's a tree growing out of a second-floor wall.

Campbell, 73, is retired and lives on a fixed income. There's no way she could afford to repair the house — or even pay the fines levied against her by Louisville's code enforcement officers.

Leaving her Lampton Street home of nearly three decades would break her heart, she says. But Campbell is on the brink of homelessness; she'll find herself in district court this fall with the prospect of being forced from her home.

Out of Compliance, Out of Luck

Campbell bought the house from her mother about 35 years ago. Today, she shares the one-time duplex with her 55-year-old son. He buses tables at a restaurant on Bardstown Road.

Campbell worked for more than 20 years as a housekeeper at University Hospital. During that time, she kept the house in working order. Occasionally, she'd fall out of compliance with the city's property maintenance code. But she'd always take heed and make the needed repairs — new windows and doors, a fresh handrail, new trim.

She retired nearly 14 years ago, and her income diminished.

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For Smoketown Retiree, Metro Code Violations May Lead To Eviction

But the list of repairs to the house didn't. And as time went on, more things needed fixing. Many of them went unaddressed. Visits from the city's code enforcement officer became more frequent, and citations and fines mounted.

Now, she owes more than $1,100 for fees associated with property maintenance violations. The cost to repair the damage to her home is estimated at roughly $50,000.

The house has an assessed value of $36,480, according to the Jefferson County Property Valuation Administrator's office. The average price of homes along this stretch of Lampton Street is $29,000.

The cost of settling up on Campbell's fines and hiring contractors to make repairs is far too steep for the retiree, whose sole income is a Social Security check netting her about $800 a month.

"I'm behind on my bills as it is," she said.

An Unwelcome Visitor

Campbell says it's not unusual for code enforcement officers to appear in her dreams — parking and waiting in their city vehicles on the street, peeking through her fence.

She says she can almost predict when a city code enforcement officer will pay her a visit. A diabetic, she says those visits cause her stress and affect her health.

"There are some that make me feel like I'm nothing, that I'm an old person that needs to be put in a nursing home, and I'm not," she said.

A team of about 40 code enforcement officers patrols more than 20 designated geographic areas across Louisville Metro, said Phillip Crowe, a code enforcement supervisor with the city's Department of Codes and Regulations.

Most initial visits from a code enforcement officer stem from a complaint from a neighbor, he said. Complaints can be generated for a range of issues, from tall grass to collapsed chimneys. Enforcement officers can verbally warn residents about being out of compliance, issue a formal notice of violation or pin fines on residents, he said.

Those fines can add up quickly. A $100 fine is issued for each violation, and on follow-up visits, an additional $100 is added for each remaining violation, as well as a $100 charge for the visit itself, Crowe said.

Property owners can appeal violations, he added. And in some cases, if an issue is corrected within 72 hours, the fine can be waived. The goal of issuing fines is to give residents incentives to get their properties into compliance, Crowe said.

"I won't say that's the best way to get it done," he said. "Unfortunately, it's a necessity."

But some people, like Campbell, can't pay the fines or make the repairs. When that's the case, Crowe said enforcement officers will attempt to educate residents on resources that provide repair assistance.

"We try to point them in the directions to get the help they can," he said.

Louisville Metro Code Enforcement officers have issued 9,500 citations to property owners in 2015. Nearly 2,300 of those relate to violations at occupied structures, totaling more than $930,000 in penalty fees, according to information provided by the Department of Codes and Regulations.

Residents can be cited for an array of code violations stemming from issues with the exterior and interior spaces, Crowe said, from leaky pipes to broken windows, busted siding and trashed yards. The city is just beginning to track compliance rates among property maintenance properties through the LouieStat Metro statistics service, Crowe said.

"One of our key performance indicators is going to be our compliance rate," he said.

From July 2014 to June 2015, more than 16,700 new property maintenance cases were opened in the department's jurisdiction. In that same time, about 15,600 cases were closed, the LouieStat data show. These numbers include cases for vacant properties, which Crowe said are often much more difficult to settle than occupied structures.

Crowe said his team of officers is persistent, despite heavy caseloads. Each enforcement officer is responsible for 350-550 property maintenance cases, he said. And they'll do whatever they can to ensure properties across the city comply with the code.

"If we're unsuccessful through the penalty process to get the violations corrected, we'll file charges and get you in district court," Crowe said.

That's the situation Campbell is in.

An Avoidable Crisis

Louisville Metro administers seven programs aimed at helping poorer residents repair their homes, said Gabe Fritz, director of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.

Any resident who meets certain income thresholds or lives in certain geographic areas can apply. A bulk of the programming is federally funded, Fritz said. Last year, about $3 million was doled out to some 300 residents for home repairs through the programs, Fritz said.

These are programs that are set up to help residents like Campbell. She said the code enforcement officers directed her to assistance resources and she reached out, but to no avail.

Campbell said she even called Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer's office and Metro Council president David Tandy.

"I still got the runaround," she said.

Campbell believes she wouldn't be in this position if the city had stepped in when things first started going bad.

"I'd been wanting to fix the house up without them putting the fines on me," she said. "I feel like, if they would have fixed it up from the get-go, I wouldn't be going through what I'm going through."

It's unclear how many people faces circumstances like Campbell's. Her situation may be a worst-case-scenario, but it's certainly not an outlier of the system, said Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.

Seniors, especially those living in low-income areas, can often struggle to maintain their homes.

"No matter how good of a steward you are of your home, things are going to get old and fail," she said.

Securing a loan to make needed repairs can be tough when property values in an area are shrinking, Hinko said. That is the case in Smoketown.

And she said funding for repair assistance programs has dwindled over the years — pointing specifically to cuts in the federally funded Community Development Block Grant program.

"When we had more funding, we had more ability to help seniors prevent deteriorating conditions," she said. "When people say we do more with less, the truth is we do less with less."

Campbell may have been passed over in the past for programs that could have helped prevent the current situation, Hinko said. But blaming the city may be misguided.

"Even the modest programs we have take their hits on funding," she said.

Fritz, who has been in his role for only about a month, said helping a struggling resident fix a leaking roof should be a basic emergency response from the city.

His office has recently began developing a new program that will connect residents with excessive code violations to resources that can help them get into compliance.

"That's a challenge that's been identified," he said. "It's something that's been discussed internally, to have a look at code violations in a way that we can work to productively remedy some of those situations."

He expects the program to roll out in the coming months.

But Hinko stresses that such programs, no matter how available, can only help as many residents as the funding allows. She said it's unlikely the federal government will funnel more money into programs that prevent housing deterioration anytime soon. That means state and local governments will likely need to fill the void.

Campbell's home seems to be on the fast track to becoming another addition to the city's stock of vacant or abandoned properties.

Hinko said longtime neighborhood residents like Campbell are "anchors" in their community. But if local entities are serious about preventing vacancies, Louisville needs adequate programming to help residents like Campbell fix up their homes, Hinko said.

"Or we're going to lose those anchors, that anchor housing, just when we need it," she said.

A Smoketown Fixture

Campbell likes her neighborhood.

"I'm proud of Smoketown," she says. "I want it to be better than it is."

She goes to community meetings and is well-known by advocacy groups such as Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and YouthBuild — groups based just a few blocks from her house.

It's a neighborhood that's slowly evolving. Campbell can look down the street from her front door and see the fresh facades of the Sheppard Square revitalization project that's nearing completion. Beyond that, a desolate, 2-acre parking lot is set to be developed into a community space.

But Campbell may not get to see the progress come full circle. She expects to be ordered out of her home by a judge when she goes to district court in late October.

Crowe said forcing residents to leave their homes comes only when a structure is no longer safe to occupy.

Campbell's home fits that description, and she knows it. The pungent smell of mold lingers at the doorway and bricks teeter on crumbling walls.

"I know it needs fixing," she says. But she just can't do it herself.

She's worried that once she moves out she'll never get to return.

"It's hard to not know what's going to happen," she says.

Campbell has three dogs. If she's forced out, she'll likely have to find a place on her own if she wants to keep them. But she says she'd be limited to about $400 in monthly rent payments, which doesn't leave many options.

Lynn Rippy, executive director of YouthBuild, said she's working with Campbell on a plan. She said Campbell will likely qualify for an emergency Section 8 program, but that's a notion Campbell is struggling to embrace.

She doesn't like heights and scoffs at the idea of a multi-level apartment building. And having to leave Smoketown means being farther away from her doctor, her friends, her neighborhood.

"I'm just praying and hoping everything comes out OK," she says.

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Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.