Published July 12, 2002

Copyright by  The Colorado Springs Gazette

SIDE STREETS: Houses beyond hope / City’s hands tied over condemned properties

sidestreetslogoBy Bill Vogrin

At the north end of the Cragmor neighborhood, on a hill beneath the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, Arthur Patterson has been watching the weeds grow around a burned-out, boarded-up house across the street.

A midnight fire on July 14, 1999, left the house at 431 Locust Drive uninhabitable in the opinion of Colorado Springs code enforcement officers, who condemned it.

It’s been empty ever since. Weeds are knee-high and have overtaken the driveway, where a Jeep was abandoned months ago.

The neighbors want to know why.

“I’ve been here 32 years,” said Patterson, 68, who retired from the Air Force in 1974. “This has always been a good neighborhood.”

Still is, he says, except for the eyesore across the street. “I just can’t understand why the city doesn’t do anything about it,” he said.

He sympathizes with the owner, Josie Trujillo, a single mother struggling to raise her niece and nephew after their mother died in 1993.

They were made homeless by the fire, which left a charred shell of the four-bedroom, two-bathroom house. About the same time, Trujillo lost the insulating business she had started in her garage.

“I love my house,” Trujillo said. “It’s paid for. I really want to live there. The fire was heartbreaking. And the house wasn’t fully insured so I couldn’t rebuild. My business failure killed my credit so I can’t get a loan to repair the house.”

So it sits.

Surely the city can contact Trujillo or take action – a loan or grant so it can be repaired or sold, Patterson said. Or the city can simply raze it.

Absolutely not, said Karon DiPentino, the city’s code enforcement administrator, who is responsible for vacant houses in the city.

“Unfortunately, it is not unusual,” DiPentino said. “We have some dwellings that have been (condemned) for a long time. A lot longer than three years. As long as they are structurally sound, they can stay boarded up indefinitely.”

She wishes there was more she could do, such as demolish a house considered a blight on a neighborhood.

“In Denver,” she said, “they have gotten pretty active in attacking blight. We don’t have that ordinance. We need it.”

Instead, houses have been allowed to sit vacant for years in the Springs. Decades, even.

The city’s list of vacant and condemned houses shows 56 residences, homes and apartments, dating to 1973.

That’s right. A two-story west-side house has been vacant since the Nixon admininstration. There were still U.S. troops in Vietnam when the house was condemned.

“It’s kind of crazy, isn’t it?” DiPentino asked.

The house at 715 N. 24th St. is owned by Joseph O’Brien, whose grandmother had it built in 1905. He also owns the house next door – where his son, Glen, lives – vacant lots across the street and a nearby west-side printing business.

The Joseph O’Brien House at 715 N. 24th St. in Colorado Springs.

Glen O’Brien is deep into a major renovation of the house. The project is on indefinite hold due to his back injury and financial problems.

“It’s probably going to take another year, maybe longer,” Glen O’Brien said.

Several neighbors are frustrated over the house. They’re tired of seeing it in constant turmoil – such as propped up on jacks for weeks and hearing construction equipment at odd hours.

Mostly, they are puzzled by the stop-and-go pace of construction and long stretches of inactivity.

“I don’t know why one vacant house would worry the neighbors,” O’Brien said. “It’s still probably better than 80 percent of the houses in the neighborhood.

“It’s just a bunch of nosy damn neighbors.”

So it sits.

Behind a chain-link fence, windows covered with plywood, weeds sprouting amid scaffolding.

Of course, there is a mechanism for demolishing abandoned buildings, but only if the regional building department declares a structure unsound and dangerous.070515-side-streets-1

But nothing for eyesores or blight due to the city’s view of private property rights.

“The city doesn’t care if it’s occupied or not,” DiPentino said. “The owner has the right to keep that property, even if it’s vacant.”

Even so, she thinks that’s a dangerous attitude and wishes the City Council would give her power to aggressively pursue abandoned houses.

“The thing about blight,” she said, “is that it’s contagious.”