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In Shawnee, Planned Demolition Of A Long-Vacant House Brings Hope

Finally, the days are numbered for the crumbling house next door to George Palmer's.

A yellow slip of paper pinned to the weathered plywood that covers the front door serves as its death notice. Delivered by staffers in the city's code enforcement and vacant property departments, it deems the house unfit for human use.

After decades, the scar on Palmer's street in Shawnee is up for demolition.

Seeing the house hauled away in pieces will be a welcome sight for Palmer. It's a stark contrast to his own home, where appearances are a point of pride. The peeling paint and rusted gutters next door clash with his trimmed shrubs and neat porch.

WFPL News has followed Palmer's story since August of last year, when we reported on what it's like to live next to one of Louisville's more than 8,000 vacant and abandoned properties.

Palmer reports critters and creeps to the city and police, and he even cuts the grass at the decrepit house next door. He fights back crawling weeds from his own plush lawn.

"I've been asking for years for something to happen to this house," he said.

Time passed, though, and little happened. Until now, it seems.

A few days after our last story about Palmer, city officials said the house next door to Palmer's was finally slated for demolition.

"This is good news," Palmer said on a recent afternoon.

Getting to this point took decades, which comes as no surprise to Jeana Dunlap, the director of the city's Vacant and Public Property Administration. The process for a house to evolve into a demolition candidate is convoluted but not uncommon, Dunlap said.

Code enforcement officers have slated about 130 structures in Louisville for demolition since the start of this fiscal year, she said. Thousands of property maintenance cases are open at any given time. And it's doubtful each case will be carried through this year because many — like the one next to Palmer — get held up in a near-perpetual purgatory of inspections and appeals.

While getting properties up to code is the first priority, demolition referrals result if a property owner's negligence continues.

"Demolition is seen as a last resort," Dunlap said.

Yet it happens. Once time passes for appeals, asbestos checks and permit applications — which can take years — an order to demolish is sent to contractor crews.

Dunlap's demolition bill is more than $713,000 this fiscal year, according to data from the Louisville Metro Office of Management and Budget.

Demolishing homes brings joy and pain, she said. Ridding streets of atrocious blight is the joy.

The pain comes when the demolition process bogs down the courts and becomes a financial burden for property owners and Dunlap's office alike. It's difficult from a historical preservation perspective, too, and she said she struggles with the idea of reducing the city's stock of built housing when its need for affordable housing continues to spike.

"We have a housing shortage for low-income families," she said.

Once a structure is gone, the chances of a developer moving in to make a purchase are even slimmer, Dunlap said. Many structures referred for demolition are flush with fines and liens — unattractive characteristics for someone seeking a profitable project. The cost of demolition is billed to property owners, she said.

"The solution to solving or reducing [vacant and abandoned properties] is redevelopment," she said.

This is why the city prefers to foreclose on properties following demolition. Dunlap said foreclosing is the "only way we can get control of the property in order to put it back into productive use."

This, ultimately, is what George Palmer wants to see happen to the house and property next door.

He doesn't expect much resistance from the owner, who has just a few more days to take action to prevent demolition.

"If they couldn't get the guy to cut the grass, I don't see how they can get him to come over and get it in livable condition in the time period they put forward," he said.

The owner declined an interview for this story.

Palmer said if the house is foreclosed on, he'll look to purchase the cleared lot. He might add a garage for his own house there. He'll definitely keep the grass cut.

"I'll fence it in and it'll be a part of my yard, and trust me, it'll look good," he said.

Palmer is 40 years old and grew up on this street, just a few doors down from where he lives now. Seeing city officials respond to his neighbors' pleas, even after all these years, gives him hope that people can make a difference and create a place to be proud to call home.

"It starts with the people that live here, the people that have a vested interest to make sure our city shines again," he said. "It's one house, but it's the house that's directly next to mine."

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.

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