HARKER HEIGHTS — Regina Butts said her mom, Rosie Scott, 91, can remember Lynn Drive’s heyday when she first moved into her home in 1982.
Now, Scott is one of only four residents who call Lynn Drive home.
“My mother is elderly; she has health issues and since she is on a fixed income, where else can she get a rent of $325 a month?” said Butts, 60, who lives on West Valley Drive, just a few houses down from her mom. “We are both kind of trapped here in limbo. If we have to move — which we don’t want to do because we like it here — I’d have to move two households.”
All Butts wants is for life to be brought back to the once boisterous community and for necessary improvements to be made, such as repairs to her mother’s roof.
“The streets used to be filled with kids playing and riding bikes and neighbors being neighbors,” she said. “Now, it’s just depressing, and I know if they fixed up the houses, one by one, people would come back here.”
Frustrated by the ongoing tug of war between the city and property owner David Buttross, Butts said she is tired of all the talking and wants to see some action.
“Either fix the houses or sell them and give us the notice we need to move on,” she said. “(Buttross) needs to get his act together, and I pray every day that he just fixes the houses.”
The future of 19 vacant houses that surround Scott’s still hangs in the balance almost a year after the city approved demolition due to substandard health and safety issues. The 164th District Court judge controls their fate since Buttross filed a temporary restraining order against the city in January to stop the demolition.
The plight Butts and her mother face is one felt in cities across the country, as abandoned and substandard houses can be found in just about every town in America.
City officials in Nolanville, Killeen and Copperas Cove said they are aware of the number of dilapidated and deteriorating homes in their cities and are working to improve the procedure to ensure property owners clean up and take action.
Fred Morris, Harker Heights director of planning and development, said last week the property owner has all the options and the city’s hands, to an extent, are tied.
“He can bring the structures up to code, demo it or do nothing and let the city demo it,” Morris said. “To date, we have not received any new documents to demonstrate compliance with our building codes with regard to restoration or rehabilitation of property.”
Once the city demolishes the property, a lien is placed against it, he said.
Lynn Drive has been the bane of Morris’ existence since he started working for the city two years ago. He remembers his first weeks on the job, when he took a ride around town with City Manager Steve Carpenter and saw the “eyesore” first hand.
“My immediate thought was, this is bad and it can’t be up to code or to standards,” he said.
In December, the Harker Heights City Council awarded a contract for demolition of 19 wood-frame structures on Lynn Drive deemed unsafe, substandard and dangerous by the city’s Building Standards Commission.
“They’re dangerous structures, from lack of maintenance and neglect,” Morris said. “There is definitely a market for this type of low-income housing, but they are entitled to the same health and welfare standards that the person living in the big shiny new house on the hill is.”
While some remodeling was done to a few of the houses, which were built in 1948, Morris said the property owners failed to take the necessary steps within the commission’s time frame to save them from demolition.
Buttross has called the city prejudiced against minorities and people with low incomes.
No city is immune to the issue, and in Cove, the two main areas of concern are Sunset Lane and Sleepy Hollow. The streets are a combination of apartments and multifamily duplexes.
Shane White, on-site manager for Cove House Transitional Housing, lives on Sunset. He said he’s happy to see the city has taken notice and is cleaning up his street.
“Not cleaning up the area gives an already bad area an even worse rap and it says that no one cares,” White said. “Well, people really do care and it was nice to see the city out here this week cleaning it up.”
While neighbors living on Sleepy Hollow said the site was always unkempt, the property got worse after a fire destroyed a home in January.
“People are treating it like a dump site, disposing of their trash, and construction crews dump their old shingles to avoid transfer station fees,” said Copperas Cove Deputy Police Chief Eddie Wilson, who is in charge of code compliance.
Mixed in with vegetation and construction debris on Sleepy Hollow, tires, rubble, television and computer parts, broken furniture and other trash have turned the area into an “unsafe eyesore” for passers-by.
Abating such properties is Copperas Cove Code Compliance’s last resort.
“Our ultimate goal is not writing tickets, it’s compliance and educating people,” Wilson said. “A lot of people don’t know the ordinances or they don’t live in the area so they are not vested in the community.”
Wilson explained these areas are a prime example of the “broken window” theory.
“When you allow neighborhoods to become dilapidated and unkept, the area manifests and attracts crime,” he said.
Wilson said properties like those on Sunset and Sleepy Hollow are extreme examples of problem properties in Cove.
“These areas are dangerous for our officers who routinely inspect the properties and then happen upon someone squatting in one,” he said.
About $10,000 is needed to abate the Sleepy Hollow lot, Wilson said. It has gone up for auction a couple of times, but didn’t sell because the cleanup would cost more than the property is worth.
Even a city the size of Nolanville, home to 4,800 residents, has issues with substandard housing.
Vacant houses along Mesquite Street in the Plaza Mobile Home Park area are Nolanville’s sore thumb, said City Manager Stephen Pearl.
“Substandard houses and structures present health and safety issues, not only for the people living in them, but for those living around them.”
Pearl said the city is working to restructure ordinances.
“It’s important to address the issue and go about it the right way because it’s a lengthy and costly process,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is for the buildings to be brought up to code.”
Nolanville Councilman Duane G. Hampton said when property owners don’t take responsibility and follow up on caring for their properties, the burden is widespread. “The nicer an area looks, the more people it attracts, and we want Nolanville to grow,” he said. “When (areas) get neglected and become unsafe for our residents, it opens the doors to mischief and fosters vandalism.”
Killeen demolished six structures so far this year and three more have demolition orders.
In response to Fort Hood being built in 1942, many houses were constructed to feed the demands of a growing military installation. Many of those homes are no longer up to code.
West Avenue J resident Juan Zamora said he had no idea the city had plans to knock down the houses next to his.
“Knocking them down will make it safer for us because all the rats, bugs and creatures that live in the abandoned houses make their way to our house,” he said. “People leave their trash there and then it attracts possums and raccoons, so I’m happy the city is doing something about it.”
Killeen spokeswoman Hilary Shine said when a building is reported as being dangerous, code enforcement investigates the structure then sends the property owner notices that the building should be secured and repaired.
“If the owner fails to secure and/or repair the building, the property goes before the Construction Board of Appeals,” she said. “The board makes a ruling that the building must be secured, repaired and/or demolished. There is typically a time frame given as well.”
As in neighboring cities, if the property owner fails to comply, the city can demolish the property at the cost of taxpayers.
“It’s turned into a waiting game on who is going to blink first,” Morris said of the Lynn Drive saga. “This game gets played all over the country and all cities can do is what is outlined in our code books or that property owners bring them up to code, which is always our goal.”