Portrait of an empty house
on March 19, 2013
A yellow cat runs up the steps of the house on 127 Chanslor Avenue, hopping over the weeds sprouting from the charred wood. It stops in the entryway and turns, shutting its eyes against the sun streaming down through the hole where the roof used to be.
The house, on the corner of 2nd Street and Chanslor, in Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood, is abandoned. It’s caught fire—twice. The entire roof is gone. The siding above the windows and doors is blackened.
It doesn’t take long for an empty house to start falling apart, says Trisha Aljoe, the city prosecutor. There are lots of reasons why properties aren’t maintained, she says—maybe it’s an absentee landlord, or an heir who doesn’t want the responsibility of a place; maybe the home was foreclosed on, and the bank hasn’t been keeping up. Whatever the reason, a run-down place can bring in squatters and drug dealers. That in turn lowers the property values around it.
It’s called urban blight, she says, and it spreads.
Richmond has hundreds of empty houses—the city doesn’t know, exactly, and the number changes day to day as houses are bought and sold, occupied and abandoned, says Tim Higares, the city’s chief code enforcement officer. Most of most of them, though, aren’t nearly as bad as 127 Chanslor, and the city wants to keep it that way. The city council recently passed a first reading of a new ordinance that would require property owners to let the city know when their building has been empty for 30 days. They’d have to submit a letter describing their plan to keep the lawn mowed, the windows and doors boarded, and to keep people from squatting or dumping trash.
That would help the city know which houses to keep an eye on, and would mean the city won’t have to take property owners to court to get them to work with the city. If they don’t submit a written plan, they’d have to pay a $250-per-day fine.
The city council will vote to approve the final version of the ordinance at the March 19 meeting.
A sedan with big rims rolls past 127 Chanslor. The street vibrates whump whuuuump whump.
The yard is full of trash—a folding table, a rotten sofa, a pile of DVD’s. Soda cans, empty two-liters. A mirror, shattered. Old clothes and broken glass, spilling out onto the sidewalk. The grass is ankle-deep.
Fatima Cota, mother of two young boys, lives across the street. She says 127 Chanslor isn’t the only abandoned house on the block; it’s just the most obvious one. The two next door to it are also empty, she says, and so are the houses on either side of Cota’s place, and the one behind her.
People dump trash there all the time, she says. Sometimes the people from the city haul it away, but more always appears. The dump costs money; the street corner is free. According to the 2012 city budget, in 2010 the city hauled 295 tons of trash off of private property—only an estimated 40 percent of the total.
Higares says that only some of that trash is from empty houses, but it is still a considerable expense to the City. It puts liens against properties when it can, for the trash pick-up and for the $3,000-to-$12,000 it can cost to board up and secure a house. But there’s often no one to hold responsible, when the trash is left on the sidewalk in front of a vacant building or in an alley out back.
The trash in Cota’s neighborhood brings flies and cockroaches and rats and feral cats, she says. Homeless people and drug dealers and prostitutes hang around too, swearing and selling drugs. All night they come and go, and she says sometimes she hears the women and their johns.
Cota moved into her house in 2006. There were two men living in 127 Chanslor, she says. Then they moved out and homeless people moved in. She woke up one morning and saw it burning. The fire department put it out, and then not long after, it burned again.
The Victorian front was built in 1909, the back added sometime after. A family used to live there, and for a while it was a daycare, says Alexandria Johnson, walking by it up the street towards 2nd. She’s lived around the corner all her life.
It used to be a nice place, she says—big yard, where kids used to play. There are other homes on the block in bad shape, stripped of copper and full of squatters, she says, but none as bad as this. Without a roof, it’s not even good for camping out.
On 2nd Street, two houses up from 127 Chanslor, a man with a weed whacker trims the grass peeking up from the cracks in the sidewalk.
The owners of 127 Chanslor skipped town, says Aljoe. The city can’t find them. They still owe Wells Fargo money on the place, but the bank just wants to cut its losses, she says. It’s paying to tear the house down. The lot was worth $102,524 when county assessors checked it out in 2008; the building was worth nothing. Aljoe is working on a warrant to get it demolished. She says the city hopes to bulldoze it next week.
A car drives by—tinted windows, horns and accordion. On the opposite corner, a woman walks up the sidewalk, following a little girl on a clattering tricycle. Another cat, gray with black stripes, runs up the steps of the house on 127 Chanslor, hops over the weeds, and disappears inside.
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