Curtis Olson hates seeing boarded-up homes, like the string of deteriorating bungalows on East Brookside Street near Cheyenne Creek that are targets for street people, drug dealers and vandals.
Olson, 50, knows that condemned houses are a blight on a neighborhood and erode property values in every direction.
And Olson is trying to do something about it: he has founded a nonprofit agency, BlightToBright.org, to help rid the city of blighted houses. He’s especially interested in what the industry calls “zombie” properties that sit vacant and allowed to deteriorate because the owner has abandoned them.
It’s a nationwide problem. A study released Thursday by RealtyTrac, which compiles housing data nationwide, reported 21 percent of homes in foreclosure nationwide in February had been vacated by the owner, making them what’s known as zombie properties. The data was part of its U.S. Foreclosure Market Report.
Those sorts of statistics motivate Olson to act before Colorado Springs joins cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and many others under attack by zombie properties.
To launch his project, Olson is mailing brochures to the owners of the top 100 houses on the city’s list of condemned properties. The brochures offer to help the owners develop a plan to get rid of the houses, most of which are uninhabitable and would cost more to repair than they are worth.
“These houses are dilapidated magnets for crime,” Olson said. “They are the worst of the worst. They need to be scraped so a new owner can start over.”
Olson said he’s troubled that Colorado Springs’ strident property rights stance has allowed houses here to stay condemned for years, even decades in some cases. And he’s frustrated that an anti-blight ordinance enacted in 2006 has rarely resulted in the demolition of zombies.
In studying the city’s condemned house list, Olson has found several similarities among them: acute physical deterioration and financial distress often coupled with absentee owners.
“Many are owned by people who live out of state,” Olson said. “They may have inherited the properties and don’t know what they own. Many think they are worth a lot more than they really are.”
In fact, many condemned properties in Colorado Springs are upside-down financially. Thousands in tax liens, code enforcement fines and penalties, home-owners association fines and other debts have piled up against the properties.
Or they are so badly damaged by neglect or abuse that it would never pay to repair them.
“You can’t make any money off them,” Olson said. “So they sit and rot.”
That’s where Blight To Bright can help, he said.
It invites owners to donate their blighted properties to the agency in exchange for a tax deduction. Blight To Bright will tackle the legal and financial issues preventing its occupancy.
Or, Olson said, Blight to Bright will buy the property after working with the El Paso County Assessor’s Office to get a realistic value of the condemned house. Such sales probably won’t net much cash, Olson conceded. But it would be an incentive for the owner to act.
The agency also offers to help the owner develop a plan to reclaim the house from the condemned list with a list of repairs to be completed on a strict timeline.
Olson said Colorado Springs risks losing its status as one of the most beautiful places to live if it continues to allow blight to creep in.
“These houses are scattered all over our neighborhoods,” Olson said.
He moved his family to the area from Austin, Texas, 13 years ago after a career with Dell Computers.
He was shocked to learn that houses here can sit condemned for 40 years, as in the case of the Joseph O’Brien house at 715 N. 24th St., near Thorndale Park in the historic Ramona neighborhood on the city’s west side.
“We’ve got a system that is absolutely broken if somebody is allowed to have a house condemned 40 years,” Olson said. “This house has had 70 code enforcement calls. We are pouring money down the drain by repeatedly sending officers, writing up reports, meeting with the owner.”
The city, Olson said, would be saving money by being more aggressive, taking those types of houses to court and being done with them.
“Some cities can take these properties, auction them off for $1 on the courthouse steps with the condition they must be razed within three months,” he said.
Olson rejects those who insist the owners of condemned houses have a sacred property right that allows them to neglect their houses as long as they want.
“Why do the property rights of the owners of dilapidated houses trump the rights of somebody living next door?” Olson said. “In a neighborhood, you share your property rights with your neighbors. That’s what living in a community is all about.
“But these people are stomping all over their neighbors’ property rights and getting away with it.”
Olson has a couple of key supporters who hope he attracts donors, volunteers and condemned houses.
“He’s really nailed what the problem is,” said Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors & Organization, the umbrella organization for the city’s neighborhoods.
“And he’s figured out he’s got to change the equation for something to happen,” Munger said. “Of all the solutions to blight that I’ve heard, his is the most likely to make it possible for people who have been hanging on to these properties because they can’t sell them to get rid of them and put them back into the marketplace.”
Tom Wasinger, the city’s code enforcement administrator, echoed Munger’s assessment of Blight to Bright and welcomes anyone willing to join his effort in reducing the inventory of condemned houses.
“I view his agency as another tool available to us,” Wasinger said. “We’d recommend him or any other agency willing to take on this problem to an owner at his wit’s end with a condemned house.”
But Olson faces a huge challenge. He’s got to persuade property owners to turn over blighted houses. And he needs to persuade others in the community to donate cash and services to help him buy and scrape condemned houses. And convince them he’s not running a get-rich-quick scam.
“He’s got to find the right help,” Munger said. “He’s not going to gain anything personally. That’s not his motivation. He’s just a guy who loves this community and sees this as a problem he can make an impact on.”