Zombie homes in Minot

Nathan Mugaas feels uneasy when he thinks about the flood debris and mold growing in the boarded-up house with a cracked foundation next door. It wasn’t what he bargained for when he rebuilt his home after the 2011 flood.

“Our house is really nice now,” he said. “It’s basically a new house. Except it’s sitting right next to this house that hasn’t been touched in three years with a yard full of weeds.”

Often called “zombie homes,” neglected and abandoned properties have persisted into the third year following the Souris River flood that damaged more than 4,000 structures. The city counted 2,716 homes damaged in the valley.

Residents who have rebuilt are growing increasingly impatient with the lack of progress by the City of Minot in addressing houses that have been abandoned, sometimes sitting untouched since the flood

“It seems to be at a pretty low priority level. That’s my concern,” Mugaas said.

Lianne Zeltinger of Minot hopes to collect 400 signatures on petitions urging action to present to the city council in May. She was more than halfway to her goal as of last Sunday.

“All I hear is we have to protect the rights of owners, but at some point, the property rights of the owners who have come back have to take front seat to the ones who walked away,” Zeltinger said.

She began driving around the city in March to document abandoned homes, open basements and empty lots, counting 370 properties, of which 300 had structures. She found 14 unsecured, open basements and an unsecured swimming pool.

The city assessor’s office lists 250 abandoned homes, of which 60 are in the buyout zone. The city is in its second phase of voluntary buyouts of homes in the footprint of a flood protection plan. Some homeowners did not rebuild but are waiting for the buyout offers. The city arranges for removal of houses that are purchased.

Abandoned houses raise concerns about mold spores, dust, fecal matter, vermin, wasps, hornets and dangers to curious children.

“I don’t think people living next door to these homes should have to accept that. The first thing you have to do is clean it up and cut the grass,” said Zeltinger, who added that city ordinances allow the city do some of those things.

“There are things that Minot could do if they were so inclined,” she said. “I want them to get rid of the blight and smelly homes and remove the roadblocks that are stopping the city officially from doing their job. It’s an overwhelming job.”

“We are working diligently on it. It just takes a lot of manpower,” city engineer Lance Meyer said.

He estimated per residence that it takes, on average, about 200 hours of staff time, including research, documentation and going through the legal steps with notices to owners.

In instances where there is an imminent danger, the city can notify the owner to take action within 15 days or the city will secure the property and send the bill. Typically, though, owners can have three months to respond.

First District Health Unit has turned more than 70 houses over to the city after determining that a health or safety issue exists. Meyer said his staff has found that some have since been demolished or are being rehabilitated, but many still are standing in disrepair.

A facts document from the City of Minot states that the city’s enforcement action is limited to measures that bring homes into compliance with health and safety laws and local ordinances. Based on a court ruling, property must be shown to be damaged to more than 50 percent of its value before it can be ordered demolished, Meyer said.

Zeltinger cites a portion of city ordinance that doesn’t require notification to address a nuisance. However, Meyer said the city would be at risk of lawsuits if it didn’t give owners due process. The result could be huge costs to the city to rebuild a demolished property or otherwise compensate the owner, he said.

In some instances, owners have responded to warning notices by taking out building permits, Meyer said. A person has six months to begin construction after taking out a permit. If nothing happens in six months, the city starts the process over again to have the property cleaned up. Meyer said sometimes just enough work is done during the six months to make it harder for the city to declare that the permit has lapsed.

A change in ownership during the course of the paperwork also can force the process to start over.

The lengthy process is frustrating for some city council members, too.

“It makes me mad that we can’t do anything about it,” said council member George Withus, whose home is surrounded on three sides by abandoned houses. One view shows him a house with the porch falling in, windows busted out, door wide open and a trailer and broken-down car in the yard.

“It’s disheartening when I come home from work and have to see that, especially when I have worked on my house and tried to get the yard done and tried to make it look good,” he said.

The smell and the weed seeds that have blown into his newly planted grass add to the discouragement.

Withus said he understands the constraints on the city in trying to force action on these homes. Any action the city might be able to take is likely to come at a big expense to taxpayers, he added.

Council member Dave Lehner acknowledged that owners of the neglected properties have rights.

“I have been frustrated, too, but there’s only so much we can do,” he said.

He also noted that while the cost of abating or demolishing homes can be assessed to property owners, that doesn’t mean they will pay. If they don’t, the taxpayers will be left with the bill, he said.

Larry Frey, another city council member living in the valley, said the city needs to get more aggressive in addressing abandoned homes going forward.

“I think the city has been fair to them, giving them this much time, but things are going to have to change,” he said.

Council member Bob Miller said the city should be more lenient on owners who secure their property, mow their yards and have plans for their houses. The truly abandoned houses need to be addressed, though, he said.

Miller said a recent drive through his ward in northwest Minot was an eye-opening experience. The problems with neglected houses are “more than I realized,” he said. Some of those properties presented safety issues that need the city’s immediate attention, he said.

“We want to exercise our right to do this. It’s not fair to the neighborhood,” Miller said. “We don’t want to be too harsh on our fellow citizens if they are making some attempt, but to those who have just walked away and have no intention, we really need to come down on that.”

Meyer said owners of the properties are a mix of original owners, banks and companies that bought properties to repair and resell or rent.

Mugaas said it’s additionally concerning that some investors appear to be buying properties and rebuilding them without properly sanitizing or cleaning them.

“In the short term,” he said, “I am really worried about these landlords coming in and quickly finishing houses and the health concerns that’s going to cause for my future neighbors.”