Fire highlights zombie home dangers

Usually, when Cottage Grove Mayor Jeff Gowing calls for public comment for items not related to the council’s agenda, there’s silence. But on Feb. 12, there was Jon Stinnett. 

Hours before the meeting, Stinnett’s afternoon was interrupted when smoke started drifting by his house. “My wife had left to go to the gym and she came back in,” he told the council. There was a fire. 

Stinnett described the heartbeats he had to decide what was important in his house. What, of the dozens and dozens of items his family had amassed over the years, was worth saving as local law enforcement urged neighbors to leave their homes. With his daughter beside him at the podium, Stinnett recalled his sleeping seven-month-old, his hurried decisions on what to take and his anger. 

“I’m terrified,” he said. “My child is terrified and that’s not ok.” 

The city council is not permitted to enter into discussions during public comment. But it didn’t matter, there was nothing the members could say on the issue that they hadn’t already said.

Just week before, the body had voted to allow the city to begin addressing the source of the Feb. 12 fire. In a tangled, out-of-the-box approach, city officials managed to take possession of an abandoned house on 6th St. and relayed their success to the council that finally, there seemed to be a path to alleviating the problem that had begun popping up shortly after the 2007 financial crisis. But less than 30 days later, a garage went up in flames and Stinnett appeared before the board. Zombie houses, it seemed, had not been vanquished. 

“Two problems collided in one spot,” said city manager Richard Meyers of the fire on Adams Ave. The house had been abandoned years before and a source of complaints from neighbors ever since. It qualified as a zombie house but city code, prior to November’s council discussion, didn’t adequately address the designation and left officials with few options other than to declare the house a nuisance and continue to send letters to owners who had already left town and stopped paying the mortgage on the home. The letters hardly ever elicited a response when the owners could be found and when ownership was a mystery, there were even fewer options for the city. 

“There are loopholes,” Meyers said. “They should have to register the owner.”

The house on Adams is still listed on county tax roles as belonging to a family trust. However, several financial institutions have had their stakes in the house as well, leaving the city to wade through records to determine who is responsible for the property.

On Feb. 12 when the garage caught fire and threatened the tree line that separated it from a block of neighbors, months of council discussions on how to handle zombie houses boiled over. 

According to Meyers, city law enforcement has a person of interest they are hoping to speak to concerning the fire. Cottage Grove Police Chief Scott Shepherd was unavailable as of press time.

The empty house and a string of fires, according to Meyers, met on Adams that day. 

After the reported suspect(s) is caught and the damage repaired to the house, what can the city do about the small army of zombie houses? Not much and it’s not alone. 

Cities across the country are still wringing their hands over the lots of empty houses left over from the great recession. In 2016, the city of Portland foreclosed on its first house in nearly half a century after 24 years of complaints and more than $66,000 in liens against the property. A code change that allowed homes to be sold for market value, rather than the total cost of the liens, was cited as the driving factor in the home’s foreclosure (and four others) but it still left the city with more than 400 empty houses. 

According to county records, Cottage Grove currently has 10 foreclosed homes but that number does not include homes that have not yet begun the official foreclosure process but have already been abandoned by homeowners, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly how many of these homes fall into the zombie home category. In 2017, Lane County sent 15 empty homes in Cottage Grove up for auction.

“People could be living in them just like you or I live in them, taking care of them and so it’s not a problem. We find out when it’s a problem,” Meyers told the council in November. 

As of Feb. 16, he said the city is “watching” approximately five zombie homes. 

At the end of last year, city officials worked with their attorneys to address a house on 6th St. that had begun to pose a public health threat. The house had been abandoned years before and by 2017, several individuals were living in the home. 

Meyers said the city refused to turn the water on to the house without a rental agreement but electricity was provided by an outside company. Law enforcement officials throughout the state are encountering individuals who have illegally taken possession of homes in foreclosure due to the advice of several websites that detail how to use “squatters rights.” However, Oregon law maintains that a squatter must prove that they have used the home openly for at least 10 years and has reason to believe they own the home. The law does not cover people who are aware they are trespassing on the property. 

In the case of the house on 6th St., law enforcement had visited the property at least 30 times, according to Meyers, and the individuals were aware they were not legally allowed inside the home. Officials were able to contact the owner of the home and strike a deal: the city would lease the home for $12 a year, enabling officials to clear the property. 

More than a month after removing the squatters, clean-up crews are still working.

“Rats,” Meyers said. An infestation of rodents had reportedly grown to the point it impeded the clean-up process. “We can’t go in and remove all the trash because the rats might run and scatter into neighbors’ yards and the sewer system,” Meyers said. “So we’re removing a layer of trash and having the exterminator come in and then removing another layer.” According to Meyers, the default exterminator fell ill at the sight of the house and his manager had to be brought in to handle the clean-up. 

The cost of the extensive clean-up, which includes storing the property left behind by the squatters in adherence to state law, initially fell to the city. However, according to Meyers, plans were in place to bill the bank that owned the property and shortly after abatement on the house started, so did the long-delayed foreclosure process. 

Meyers plans to send a bill to the responsible party for the house on Adams Ave. as well and bring an item before the city council in an attempt to take possession of the house. 

The “receivership” method was discussed during the November council meeting as a possible fix for the 6th St. house before being set aside for the lease deal. Essentially, according to the city attorney, the city would take possession of the house as a result of the multiple liens against the property as well as the numerous visits by local police.

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