File this one away under “No good deed goes unpunished.” In 2014, now-deceased Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka (God rest his soul) called to give me a heads-up. A house on our block, actually six doors away from our residence, was in jeopardy.
The magnificent 4,400 sq. ft. side-by-side duplex, masterfully built in 1874, was standing empty, and once the scrappers found out and stripped it, there would be no recourse but to tear it down, thus creating another vacant lot that the city might or might not cut.
The house had been built with the best materials available at the time: Copper gutters and downspouts (which would sell for a couple of thousand dollars at a scrap yard) and intricate mahogany fireplaces, staircases and crown molding throughout. Plus there were steel pipes that ran through the structure for the hot water heating system, with radiators in each room. Once we gained entrance (taking a first-class rehab contractor along with us), he pointed out that the floors were dead level, the stairways didn’t creak, and there was no signs of cracks in the walls, which would have signaled structural damage. He marveled at the construction but said it would need to be stripped down to the studs, rewired, and a new HVAC system installed.
What had happened was that the previous owners (who shall forever remain unnamed) had at one point owned it outright, but kept pulling out the equity with numerous second and third mortgages over the years. When the housing bubble burst in 2008 they were left holding the bag, and foreclosure was eventually initiated. By the time Judge Pianka called me the family had been dispossessed, but not without a fight.
Not wanting to appear to be scavengers, I contacted former Ohio attorney general Marc Dann, whom I knew to be a good “dirt” lawyer, one who deals with land and housing issues. As it turned out, Marc had represented the family in their legal battles, eventually taking their case all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. They were attempting to make the case that some obscure 1800s law, if properly read and understood, meant they didn’t have to pay back the funds they had borrowed. Some folks contend a similar law means they don’t have to pay federal income taxes. I met some of those folks in federal prison.
When I said that our nonprofit didn’t want to get involved if there was any chance of the family getting the house back, his exact words were, “Obama has a better chance of getting a third term than they have of getting that house back.” So we moved to save the property from being decimated, as was happening to so many homes during the foreclosure crisis.
We asked the mortgage company in Kansas that held the paper on the house to donate it to our nonprofit, but they demanded $20,000. I still don’t know how Judge Pianka did it, but within two weeks the company donated it to Neighborhood Solutions for the sum of $1.
Our immediate concern was to stop the rain from coming in and doing further damage. There were three holes in the roof, one of which must have been there for over a decade since the water had penetrated the roof joists to the point they couldn’t hold a nail. The entire back quarter of the roof had to be rebuilt. By the time we had secured the property (and evicted the family of raccoons that had taken up residence in the attic), we were $40,000 in.
About that time the couple that had lost the home started a campaign to force us to give them the house back and began spreading the falsity that we, in cahoots with some mysterious others with ties to the government, had stolen their domicile from them. We, however, were not caught unawares; we knew such nonsense was coming sooner or later and my wife counseled to simply ignore it, which I did at the time.
The couple enlisted the aid of T.J. Dow (who was the councilman at the time and who by then had shown his true colors) to try to put pressure on us to basically eat the money we had already put into the property, but no way was that going to happen. We were not looking to make a profit, simply recoup what we had put into stabilizing the home. Dow sent an “emissary” who tried to caution me that to avoid getting a bad reputation in the neighborhood I should simply comply. It was all I could do to keep from straight-out laughing in his face. And then I countered, “I’m willing to ask my board of directors if we’ll commit to forgiving $20,000 if you’ll put up the other $20,000.” I never heard from him again.
Nonetheless, the couple persisted with their lies and didn’t stop until I threatened to retaliate by posting the dozens of photos we took of the interior of the house. It literally was not fit for human occupation and they were fortunate the County Department of Children and Family Services didn’t know the conditions their children were being raised in — the agency would have taken custody. We had to haul five 40-yard dumpsters of debris and filth out of the house, including numerous gallon jugs filled with urine. No, I’m not making this up.
We sat on the house, never putting it on the market, but four or five people over the years expressed interest in purchasing it. Our terms were always the same: We only wanted back what we had put into it, taxes and all, not one penny more; but not one penny less.
Eventually our current councilman Basheer Jones purchased it, and the meticulous and expensive rehab is now over 75 percent completed. And as the photo shows, it’s beautiful. But this good outcome is now causing the rumors to once again resurface. Fortunately, I still have those photos of the condition we found the house in my computer. I sure hope no one forces me use them and attach names.