NewSpin: House of the Rising Stench
Written by Christian Piatt
There’s a home down the street from us that’s affectionately known by neighbors – particularly those within smelling distance – as “The Toilet.” On warm days, the distinct smells of decaying garbage and slow-rotting feces waft through the air.
Gross, right? Try living by it.
The Toilet, which some might call a rental property, sits at 1724 N. Grand and is the bane of the block. In a neighborhood that has been designated “historic,” The Toilet stands alone as a monument to squalor. From the couch on the front porch to waist-high weeds and crumbling façade, the place looks like it should be condemned.
How can anyone live in such conditions? For most of the past decade no one has lived there, which is part of the problem.
The house, title to which is under the name of Robert P. Mourning, was consistently rented until mid-2003. After the last tenants moved out, the utilities were disconnected and the house sat vacant for the next six years. In the meantime, homeless people regularly broke in and made camp – bathroom included – inside the house, alongside wild animals that found shelter within the decaying walls.
For years, neighbors would occasionally mow the lawn and pick up trash left by homeless visitors in an effort to keep the place from looking even worse. The owner was nowhere to be found, and would not return messages.
When some renters finally moved in, the carpet, which by now was drenched in sewage from a backup in the lines, was tossed into the backyard along with animal excrement, garbage and other goodies. What wasn’t thrown into the yard or the garage was burned in the fireplace, creating a noxious stench that caused several neighbors to call everyone from the sheriff to the health department in an effort to get the place cleaned up.
Oh, and although the new family moved into the place, they did so without reconnecting any utilities, including water. So they used candles to light the space despite the many clear code violations. When regional building staff finally deemed the home uninhabitable until utilities were turned back on, the family simply tore down all warnings and camped inside until the sheriff’s department threatened them with serious consequences if they were found on the grounds except to clean it during the day.
More than a month later, the utilities were reinstated and the young family moved back in, along with at least eight cats and a dog. There seemed to be a revolving door on the house, with various newcomers crashing there from one night to the next. Meanwhile, the animal excrement was tossed into the backyard to mingle with the carpet and other garbage.
You get the picture.
A number of complaints were filed with the health department, and a few times Mr. Mourning was ticketed. But there were a couple of problems with the system. First, the fines cost significantly less than any of the repairs would have been to remedy the issue. Second, no one with any authority followed up to enforce the violations.
Instead, Mourning’s paid a few hundred dollars to satisfy citations over the past decade, and the festering heap of a house continues to decay before the community’s eyes and noses.
When challenged by neighbors of such properties about the relatively impotent code enforcement power the city and county seem to have in such cases, officials balked, saying that their hands are tied by state regulations. This, however, is false, since local communities can establish their own codes and consequences, so long as they are at least as strict as the state’s.
It would be bad enough if this was an isolated incident, but Mourning himself owns more than a dozen properties around town, many of which are in similar shape – or worse. If he were the only culprit, a handful of run-down homes wouldn’t be enough to create a larger negative perception of our city. But he’s not.
So, if slumlords have little incentive to change their ways, and our local officials hedge at giving more teeth or funding to the anemic code enforcement we currently have, what’s a resident to do? For one local citizen, the answer is to take the cause online.
We all know that Pueblo struggles with an image problem with many tourists and residents from the north. But until we become more proactive about making the change ourselves, and unless regional building officials and other code-enforcement bodies get serious about making it painful for owners to let blight continue, whom can we really blame for the bad rap we have, other than ourselves?
Over the weekend prior to publication, Lori Winner, moderator of the Pueblo Houseofshame page on Facebook, posted that she had received a “proverbial shot over the bough” and was considering shutting the page down.
In response to P.U.L.P.’s inquiry, Ms. Winner said she had received word from her husband – Jay Winner, Executive Director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District – that Pueblo police captain Troy Davenport wanted to speak to her. Though her husband gave Davenport her number, Ms. Winner claims he didn’t call her.
The week of November 20th, Ms. Winner wrote to me, stating, “[My husband] Jay’s board member told Jay on Tuesday that Davenport said that ‘police were laughing because they are going to drive by her houses.’ On Friday I [received] 3 citations on 3 different rental properties,” though she claims her properties all are “nice” and that, “The violations are ridiculous, and easily fixed at no cost.” She added, “however I am seeing this as a warning shot.”
Following her husband’s call to one of the board members who had heard the conversation noted above, Ms. Winner received a call from Capt. Davenport, who denied that her properties were being targeted in retaliation for her publicity against run-down properties and the lack of enforcement by local officials.
Davenport told P.U.L.P. that the reason he originally intended to call Ms. Winner was to invite her and her husband to observe how the code-enforcement process works in person. However, when seeking permission for this, other officials from the city told him the Winners already had been offered such an opportunity, so Davenport saw no point in calling her.
Davenport also said that he has no recollection of any such comments being made at any meeting where he was present. He also clarified that the three items issued to Ms Winner’s properties were notices of violation, and not citations, which means the property owner has ten days to remedy the violation without further action.
Davenport said that it is the policy of the code enforcement department to respond to any citizen complaint, including the cases involving Ms. Winner. He also noted that, since all complaints are allowed to remain anonymous, he had no way of knowing who had lodged the complains against Ms. Winner’s properties.