Owners of four properties declared nuisances, including a building at an apartment complex claimed to be “not fit for human habitation,” were given 30 days last week by the Searcy City Council to clean up their properties after public hearings were held.
Tom Kelso, owner of the Briarwood Apartments at 2103 W. Beebe-Capps Expressway, told the council that he has had an ongoing problem for two years with “abandonment, squatters and persons that do not live there that have accrued issues that were dangerous.”
“There are remnants of people who have lived there that were not complying with my wishes to clean up,” Kelso said. “They rent the inside of the property, not the outside. For whatever reason, they refuse to work with me. The other buildings weren’t like that so with a combination of squatters going into empty units as well as people as I did evict that left me their uncles and aunts and mothers and fathers ... .
“I have tried to work with the Searcy police and their disposition is different, has been different the last two years. The information I am getting from some of the officers, most of them, is that they have had to rethink based on the tenant-landlord law that if the person has any personal items in that unit, he is considered a resident and I have to go through a process with the sheriff’s department. And I don’t even know some of the names, I don’t know who these people are. They come in at night. I try to stay up and catch them – some I do and some I don’t.”
He said the last couple of years have “been different than the past 20 years. Out of 45 units, there were 13 operational. I put everyone of them back into operation and they have been rented in the past.”
He said he did not know how to go about getting everyone out of the nuisance property, Building 4. “But when I found out there were meters being switched and changed, not by my people but by the tenants and their friends, and then Entergy got involved and made Mr. [Jeff] Webb and his [Code Enforcement ] department aware of it ... at the times that was going on, I had been home in bed for two weeks. My blood pressure is now an issue. I’m not able to work the 10 to 12 hours a day that I used to and I’m quite sick most of the time.”
Kelso said he wasn’t using his health as an excuse. What he plans to do is get additional management to help him and he is also considering selling the property. He said he has other properties and has sold three of them this year and is putting himself in a position where he can retire.
Kelso said he “wholeheartedly” is willing to do what the city is asking. “Why? Because if it’s unsafe, I am responsible for it, and that is also in regard to the person that I rented to.” He said he has not walked through all eight of the units that are in Building 4. “When I got this violation notice, it sounded like all 45 units were in disarray. In the last paragraph it talks about Building 4.”
There has been some miscommunication, according to Webb, saying that he was under the impression that those who were living in that building when Entergy came out and saw the meters tampered with literally took cable and ran it from one set of terminals from one apartment to the other. “I would consider that a fire hazard and I rejoiced when someone other than myself was making a note of it.”
Webb said an inspection was done on all eight units Feb. 14 and found electrical, plumbing and heating and air code violations, building violations, fire violations and all kinds of violations. “And he has not cleaned up the outside of the building. There is still stuff everywhere. There has been some progress made but it’s far from clean.”
Webb said all code enforcement can require Kelso to do is to secure and clean and maintain the outside of the building. “Right now, it’s not fit for human habitation at all.”
Councilman Rodger Cargile asked Webb if this building was the only one that was a concern right now and he said, ‘No it’s not. There’s other buildings that the outside is looking the same way. We are going to visit with that if he doesn’t get them cleaned up.”
Kelso responded, “One of us is seeing something different. I challenge you to drive by on your way home and see for yourself. Building 4 did have a lot of stuff, not from my people but the tenants, that was laying out in the yard. For Mr. Webb to say it’s an eyesore right now ... I am very upset he said what he said.
“I can bring people in here that assisted me in carrying three trailer loads of stuff off the property. For him to say ‘little progress,’ he hasn’t been on the property for 30 days. He’s got some bone he is trying to pick with me because that is not the truth, but I welcome you to drive by yourself.”
Webb said that he and another code enforcement worker were at the property Monday and Tuesday the previous week and there had been progress but “not nearly the amount on the west side of the building.” Webb mentioned that there was “stuff all over the balconies on at least two of the units.” Kelso said he wasn’t responsible for the balconies.
Councilman Don Raney told Kelso before he got to the meeting he thought it was his whole complex that was going to be addressed.
“You said drive by and look at it. It’s pitiful!” Raney said. “You need to drive around and look at all the other apartments. I think we’re through talking and code enforcement is making a recommendation as to Building 4 to declare it a nuisance.
“I’m going to vote for that but I hope you go get a permit and you redo it because we do need decent rental property in Searcy. But for you to stand up here and say, ‘Police won’t do this, I can’t get this done,’ that’s what a landlord is for. You have rental property, you have rental agreements that allow you to come in and inspect at reasonable times so you can take care of your property. It is not the police department’s job to do that.”
Councilman David Morris told Kelso that he knows “that we have had these conversations in this City Hall for at least 12 years about the situation and condition of these apartment buildings out there and I agree with Mr. Raney, I can go to every apartment complex in Searcy and undoubtedly yours is the worst condition. ... You need to take responsibility. You need to step up and you need to fix it, make it look presentable or you need to get out of the apartment complex business in Searcy in my opinion.”
The other “nuisance properties” were residences at 102 S. Lucy St., 408 N. Fir St. and 1007 W. Pleasure Ave.
Daniel Livingston, speaking about the Lucy Street property, said he was wondering why the property was being declared a nuisance other than the fact that it burned. His mother sat close by and said the property was hers and her son would be the contractor doing the work on the property.
Councilman Don Raney said, “We’ll let the code enforcement people tell us why it needs to be declared a nuisance. Why do you think it’s not a nuisance?”
Livingstone said, “It caught on fire, We got it cleaned up.” His mother said, “It’s because of the outside of the house is what it is. It’s because the outside of the house is still a nuisance to the property. We just have to wait until the weather lets us finish it.”
Webb said the house burned in October 2022 “and we have given them sufficient time to make the repairs. ... She has already purchased a permit but we would like to review in 30 days like our ordinance says and make sure there is sufficient progress towards the repairs. If not, this could go on for a long time.”
Raney said if they make sufficient progress to “cure the nuisance situation, the city, your department, can extend them time to do that?” Webb said, “Sure, you bet.”
Livingston said “a lot of progress” has been made. “We done gutted the inside of the house, took all the sheet rock out, cleaned it up. ... You just don’t understand how hard it was.”
Webb said that they have made progress cleaning it up but the siding on the house is burned up and the roof is burned up. He said they went through step by step what needed to be done.
Jackie Studdard, the owner of the Fir Street property, said she has gotten multiple estimates and someone from Little Rock would start in two weeks fixing up the outside of her property. For the inside work she said she spent $39,000.
Studdard said she is 75 years old and the property means a lot to her, and “I am going to get it up to what you all want me to.” She said she is not currently living in the house but lives next door.
Webb said a permit had not yet been secured, but “really all they have to do is fix the outside of the house. There’s nothing that says they have to finish the inside of the house. They do have to fix the outside and secure it so no one can get in there – so vagrants can’t get in there – and just keep the outside of it clean.”
A retired postal worker who said he was Studdard’s friend said, “This is a growing problem monthly for her to maintain the house because of her physical condition and her financial condition. This is trying to be explained to people but they don’t seem to listen.” He said she is expecting to have the money in late spring/early summer to renovate the house completely.
“It was her mother’s house. She got it, inherited it,” he said. “I am asking the City Council to extend this to six months rather than 30 days and furthermore, the code enforcement people, please don’t harass her about this, please. She is not physically able even to supervise the reconstruction on the house.”
Studdard said, “I care more about that house than any of you could possibly. ... The house will be redone inside and out and I have a son who will be living there, and that’s it.”
Webb said code enforcement was just asking that a permit be secured to do the work on the property.
Wade Roetzel, who identified himself as the mortgage holder for the Pleasure Avenue property, said his aunt and uncle had bought the land and built the house in 1800 so he said he has a lot of memories over there as a child and just would like the chance to fix it up.
Raney said the first things he wants done is for Roetzel to get a permit and start working on things. “Code enforcement will give you that time but we have got to have something done.”
Roetzel said he has kept the property mowed all these years and they have had people breaking in and they boarded the house up. “I’ll start repairing the house or I will tear it down. ... It has some really nice woodwork. If I tear it down, I will take that out and use it. I have already had a roofer look at it.”
Webb asked that the same thing be done for Roetzel, that would be to declare the property a nuisance and for him to get a permit and start showing significant progress for cleaning it up or to get a demolition permit and tear it down.
Cargile asked if as the administrator of the estate, Roetzel had the power to tear the residence down. City Attorney Will Moore said that he does.
Moore said with “the declaration of a nuisance is, the City Council is exercising authority per ordinance over the property. It is not an immediate green light to abate the property or abate the nuisance but it is a formal expression of authority over it and it encourages folks to make abatement, maneuver it to the property, subject to Mr. Webb’s direction of the code enforcement.”
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