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Council's Slow Start On Vacant Properties Irks Neighbors

George Palmer talks about the vacant house next door to his home in Shawnee.
George Palmer talks about the vacant house next door to his home in Shawnee.

The crumbling house next door to George Palmer’s 41st Street home hasn’t changed much over the years.

Phone books are piled on the porch. Boards, cracked and curled after years of baking in the sun, cover the windows and front door.

The house has long been vacant. Palmer, 40, said it’s been so since he was a boy. He’s seen cats, rats and raccoons scamper in and out; he’s seen squatters and strangers have a smoke on the porch.

Palmer calls the place a dump.

"I want to put up a privacy fence so when we have a cookout, we don't have to look at this," he said.

The so-called dump on 41st Street is one of some 8,000 vacant or abandoned properties — mostly land with structures — spread across Louisville.

It's not a new problem here. Louisville's struggle with vacant properties began in the early 1980s, well before the economic collapse of 2008, said Jeana Dunlap, director of the city's vacant and public property division.

And no section of the city is immune to the abandoned properties. But, Dunlap said, they're concentrated in Louisville's westernmost neighborhoods, which are also its poorest.

The presence of such properties can project a negative neighborhood image, stifle economic growth and — as Palmer said — hurt a homeowner's pride.

"It's embarrassing," he said.

Council Stepping In

Shortly after being elected president of the Metro Council, David Yates announced he would reinstate a committee to examine the city's struggles with vacant and abandoned properties.

"That issue is a major concern for the people we represent," he said in January.

The five-member bipartisan committee met for the first time Monday. The discussion spanned nearly two hours.

But by the time it concluded, only Brent Ackerson, the committee's chair, remained in the council chambers.

No legislative duties have been assigned to the group.

Ackerson said he wants first to educate the committee on all aspects of vacant and abandoned properties.

"Once we garner a full understanding and knowledge of this, we may be empowered then to pick a course and design some legislation to address it," he said.

The committee's success, Ackerson said, hinges on ensuring any formal effort undertaken is seen through.

"If the West End and vacant properties and curing the economic disparities are going to be a priority of ours, then we're going to have to be willing to make it a long-term priority and come up with a solid plan," he said. "What we've been doing hasn't worked."

Dunlap said she welcomes the council's interest in the topic. She said "if nothing else," the committee could help educate residents and other council members on why vacant and abandoned properties persist in Louisville.

"So they realize this is a community issue and the city can't do it itself," she said.

Legal Barriers Remain

Archaic real estate laws in Kentucky make dealing with abandoned properties difficult.

Properties end up abandoned for myriad reasons. Most notably, Dunlap said, it occurs after a death. Abandonment cases also come from investors who abort plans to redevelop, she said.

Other issues arise when officials are called to sort through foreclosure processes, tax lien obligations and tracking down heirs "spread across the country and the world," she said.

'There Is No Accountability'

About seven months ago, George Palmer told WFPL News he'd like to see the abandoned house next door demolished.

Today, he still hasn't found a more suitable answer when he's asked about what he wants to see done with the slumping structure.

"I'm just hoping it doesn't fall into my house during a bad storm," he said.

Palmer said little has been done to improve the property for more than a decade — other than his own efforts to cut the grass and pick up trash.

City records show the property owner owes more than $16,000 in fines. But Palmer said fines do little to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood when they're imposed on apathetic or absentee property owners.

"The accountability for someone who owns a house like this, there is no accountability," he said.

Palmer challenged the committee members to come to 41st Street and look at the house next door to his. He wants them to imagine how the "dump" can affect the quality of life for those who live here.

He grew up on 41st Street. His parents still live a few doors away from his own.

From his front lawn, where on a recent weekday he worked with his father prepping for Spring – raking away thatch and laying fresh seed – Palmer rattled off the name and tenure of nearly every neighbor in eyeshot, many with equally manicured lawns, clean gutters, blooming flowers.

The house next door to Palmer's is a smudge on this picturesque street in Shawnee – a thorn in the tidy homeowner’s side.

"If you want things to be better or people to even be interested in investing in this area, listen to people that are in this neighborhood," he said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.