JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Fed-up residents say the city isn't doing enough to fix a problem plaguing neighborhoods throughout Jacksonville. They say homes have been abandoned by their owners and they're not only creating eyesores and health hazards, they're also hurting their property values.
We took city leaders to properties in different parts of Jacksonville to find out why more is not being done.
Northside abandoned home
Laura Press says the home across the street from where she lives on Moore Avenue on the Northside has flooded twice and the inside is disgusting since it has never been cleaned up.
"This whole area, in Irma, had about a foot-and-a-half or two feet of water," Press told the I-TEAM about the home. "I think it would have to be bulldozed. It's unlivable."
Press says the owner of the home hasn't lived here in years.
"There's snakes and rats and possums and who knows what else is living in here."
The I-TEAM found weeds have grown up through the windows, the garage is filled with stuff at least five-feet high, and we see no running electricity.
Press says she has persistently called the city of Jacksonville -- which has paid to have the lawn mowed outside the home, but she says that's all the city will do.
"The mayor has said he wants to clean up neighborhood blight and help neighborhoods on the Northside get a step up, yet it seems we are unable to make any headway here. The fines just keep accruing and accruing and accruing and it doesn't seem to matter. Nothing gets better," said Press. "It hurts our property values. While our tax assessments are going up, our property value is going down because no one wants to buy a house here with this out your front door."
The I-TEAM found the city has charged the owner every time it's had to use your tax dollars to pay a contractor to clean up the outside of the Moore Avenue home. But, we've also discovered the owner hasn't paid any of that money back in years.
We are not naming the owner because she is not charged with any criminal wrongdoing, but there is a list of nuisance liens filed by the city that date back to 2008 for the work it's done. The liens total more than $8,600 and the owner also still owes more than $3,000 in unpaid taxes.
The city confirms to the I-TEAM is has investigated 40 code enforcement cases on that one property on Moore Avenue, but this same owner owns three other homes across Jacksonville. We found those three homes are abandoned, too.
Westside abandoned home: Cedar Hills
That same owner has a home in Cedar Hills on Angol Place. The first thing you notice is a large houseboat sitting in the front yard. There is also a car in the front yard that doesn't appear to have been moved in quite a while. We knocked on the front door to talk with the owner. No one answered. We could see through the glass door, that there is so much stuff behind it, we're not sure it can be opened.
It's a home neighbors have been complaining about, and the city has opened 28 code enforcement investigations and just like with the Northside home, the city has used tax dollars to clean up the front yard.
On this property on Angol Place, the owner has not paid more than $5,100 in fees and owes more than $1,600 in property taxes.
Westside abandoned home: Lakeshore
When the I-TEAM got to this same owner's third property -- this one located in Lakeshore on Lexington Avenue -- there was a violation notice hanging on the front door and more than $7,000 in fines dating back to 2004. That's 14 years' worth of complaints.
Code enforcement has been called to the home 22 times and more than $1,600 in property taxes have not been paid.
Westside abandoned home: Ortega Farms
The fourth home owned by this same owner is on Kimbrell Drive South in Ortega Farms.
The city confirms this property has unpaid taxes and two nuisance liens:
- First one was filed in 2013 with an outstanding lien of $1,668
- Second one was filed in 2016 with an outstanding lien of $864
- Unpaid 2017 property taxes are $855
I-TEAM takes complaints to the city
The I-TEAM contacted City Councilman Jim Love because the home on Kimbrell Drive and the one on Lexington Drive are both located in his district.
"At what point does the city stop giving her (the owner) so many options? And can you take the property and auction it off?" we asked Councilman Love.
"Well, I think the only way I believe we can do it is if it's unsafe and currently, I don't see that it's unsafe, or they don't pay the taxes and then there's a tax lien and someone buys the tax lien," he answered.
Love told us a house has to be literally falling down or the roof caving in before the city will even consider condemning it as a public safety hazard. And, despite how it might look on the inside, with -- stuff piled high -- Love said the city can't tell someone how to live.
Love also told us that he believes the city will eventually recoup the money on all of the homes owned by the same owner because she cannot sell them without paying back the city. If the homeowner should die, the homes would go into a trust and the trust would have to pay back the city before the homes could be sold. "The titles are not clear until the money is repaid," explained Love.
I-TEAM tracks down owner of 4 "eyesore" properties
The I-TEAM did track down the owner of the four homes. She told us she's been sick and says she now has people cutting the lawns of the properties. She also told us, she intends to pay her liens and back property taxes.
Councilman Love says he also talked with the woman's husband who assured him they would do better about taking care of the properties.
Southside abandoned home
Residents living on the Southside also contacted the I-TEAM about the eyesore in their neighborhood. They too wish the city could do more.
"I cut my grass every day and I have to look at that," said Mike Pulsinelli about the home across the street from his on Peach Street.
Pulsinelli says three years ago, the owner walked away when she couldn't afford to repair a hole in the roof.
"When you open the door, the black mold will hit you. It is black as my sneakers," he explained. "Inside, it's probably roach infested with rats. Poor Rick is probably getting them over there."
Rick he's referring to, is Rick Higgins. He lives right next door to the abandoned home.
"We've been calling the city five to six times at least. Email, text them. The third time I called, the city said, 'Well, we got no notice about it, we haven't heard anything about it.' I said, 'Well, there you go, I done called. This is my third time.' And they said, 'Well, I'll let them know,' six months later, nothing still," Higgins told the I-TEAM.
Higgins said, when the city did finally send someone to mow the lawn, well, only part of the lawn was mowed.
"The guy that cuts the grass came six months ago, at least. He says, 'Well, my equipment won't fit through the gate, I'll have to get another lawnmower.' That was six months ago," he explained.
There is no running electricity to the house, it looks like the city has boarded up the front door, and a violation notice is posted on the outside.
The backyard is even worse. Weeds have grown so high, they have reached near the top of a 6-foot fence that divides Higgins property from the abandoned home.
Higgins told us there are so many snakes in the weeds, they get into his house. He thinks his cats drag them in.
"I had (a snake) just two days ago and another two weeks ago. About a month ago, I had one about four-foot coiled in the kitchen when my wife came home from work."
Higgins has lived in the Windy Hill neighborhood nearly all of his life. He bought his home 20 years ago and he's proud of it and takes care of it -- just like Pulsinelli takes care of his home.
Both say it's not right that the city doesn't do something. They say condemn it or force the owner to fix it.
"Keep saying, 'Let's make Jacksonville beautiful.' Okay, so let's do it," said Pulsinelli. "Clean up some of these neighborhoods because what it does is bring the property values down and loses tax money."
The I-TEAM reached out to the mayor's office requesting an interview with the director of code enforcement. We got tired of waiting for answers and called city councilman Scott Wilson. The house on Peach Street is in his district.
"The city knows about this property. Why has more not been done to hold this homeowner responsible?" the I-TEAM asked Councilman Wilson.
"So the city has cited them for a nuisance property. My understanding when they review this property they did not see anything that showed an unsafe structure. They did see mold on the property, but in order for it to be determined an unsafe structure it has to be ready to collapse," he answered.
The only way the city would know that is if it could inspect the house, but that's another problem.
"We are not allowed to go on someone's private property without their permission because it's private," said Councilman Wilson, the same thing we heard from Councilman Love when referring to abandoned homes in his district.
So, because the home is abandoned, and the city needs permission, inspectors can only work with what they see on the street.
"Now I understand why the homeowners who live on either side are so upset. How could this be allowed by the city?" we asked.
"I agree," he said. "I am not defending this property or any property that looks like this. I wanna do all I can to help clean them up as well. Just realize, the city has obstacles because of private property rights, and that's where the problem comes from."
Wilson added, "Now that this is on my radar, I will make sure to follow up and make sure the property gets cut. I will also ask a supervisor to review the building itself for an unsafe structure."
Neither Pulsinelli nor Higgins contacted Councilman Wilson to complain about the property because they said they didn't think they needed to. The city and the mayor tell citizens all the time to call 630-CITY if they have problems -- a phone call neighbors made more than once.
City's "hands tied" to do more?
From what city leaders have explained to the I-TEAM, when it comes to abandoned properties in Jacksonville, it appears the city's "hands are tied" so-to-speak for a permanent fix.
If code enforcement isn't allowed on a person's property without permission, and if a home can't be condemned unless it's literally falling down, it appears the responsibility to deal with abandoned homes falls on the homeowners who seemingly care very little about the house or the neighborhood since they are no longer living there.
We did ask both city councilmen, Jim Love and Scott Wilson, if they could create language through an ordinance that could force homeowners to take responsibility for these abandoned houses. Both told us, the city cannot do anything that infringes on their property rights.
What concerned neighbors can do
1. We're told if the grass or weeds reach at least 15 inches high and cover most of the property, the city has contractors who will cut it -- but neighbors have to report it. Councilman Love recommends creating a paper trail -- so text the city at 630-CITY or email the city at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. If there is a public safety hazard, meaning the building itself is falling apart or there is a pool causing a mosquito infestation, while it may take time, the city can have the building condemned. But keep in mind, city inspectors cannot walk on private property to inspect any home without the homeowner's permission. So, if you live next door, take a picture from your property and sent it to the city or to your council representative.
3. If there are vehicles that are parked on a property and appear to be abandoned, contact the city and report it. The vehicles must have a valid license plate tag. (While with the I-TEAM on Kimbrell Drive, Councilman Love took photos of the expired tags on the vehicles parked on the property. He says code enforcement is sending the homeowner violation notices. If not corrected, they will be towed.)
If you have trouble getting the city's attention about a problem, as the I-TEAM has seen before, you should contact your local council representative. They often have better success at reaching city of Jacksonville department chiefs.