Where there’s smoke …

A neglected house on South First Street burned last month, unearthing a web of bureaucratic nonsense that kept anyone from doing something to prevent it

Candace Jaworski and Kenny Stewart are sound asleep on the second floor of their Old Louisville Victorian, and their dog, a boxer mix called Rebel, is milling about in his crate, as he often does at some point during every night. It’s a chilly Oct. 15, and in a few hours another Monday morning will begin, although differently than they normally do for these two and their neighbors.

Candace and Kenny ignore Rebel, but the dog won’t calm down. So Kenny sits up, and out the window he sees something unbelievable: lashing at his house from the one that backs up to it are wild whips of flames. They lap at his windows, trying to feed, probably 20 feet away, and suddenly it’s frenzy. Candace and Kenny get decent and run downstairs, outside. It’s 1246 S. First St. on fire, the one of three-in-a-row that’s still occupied. The three houses, until early this summer owned by the same person, are in various states of decrepitude and disrepair.

Kenny’s hollering to see if anyone’s inside and Candace is trying to compute — think rationally, stay calm. Neighbors awaken, wander out. One guy eventually exits the front of the house, and two people — one who neighbors call “Granny” and another man — appear rather suddenly at the second-floor windows. Granny jumps and Kenny breaks her fall, but the man won’t do it.

Candace called 911 at 2:19 a.m. Five minutes later, Fire & Rescue was on the scene, and about two hours after helping the man down from the window with a ladder, the massive blaze was under control.
“You could so feel the heat,” Jaworski said in a recent interview.

“It was like standing next to a bonfire,” Ken Herndon said of his spot across the street. The back of Herndon’s house abuts the lot where 1246 stood. It’s two doors down from Candace and Kenny.

Within eight hours of the fire, Metro’s department of Inspections, Permits and Licenses ordered the building demolished, and by that afternoon, the 87-year-old house was a pile of ash, bricks and rubble.

Nobody died. Nobody was really even hurt, technically speaking. But the toppling of 1246 was the end of a chapter in a two-year saga that has pitted well-intentioned, well-off neighbors against an apparently broke, delinquent landlord, the confusing web of foreclosure and a Metro agency — IPL — lodged in a rather difficult position amid it all. Nobody’s quite saying this confluence caused the fire, so I’ll just say this: It led to a fire that could’ve taken five other historic homes down with it.

Every year it seems Louisville sets a new record for foreclosures. That is consistent with the national climate, and the bottoming out of the subprime mortgage market is now hitting lenders perhaps as hard as it’s always thumped buyers.

And here, in the rubble of 1246, is an important discussion: When things fall apart like this, who is responsible for keeping something worse from happening?

Karen Faulkner’s parents owned these three houses before her. But by January 2004, according to deed records, Faulkner owned all three. The houses are typical of the Old Louisville neighborhood: airy, three-story brick Victorians built to last at least until now.

The list of IPL violations for the three properties is unusually long, and there has been a bounty of complaints to police about illicit and illegal behavior there.

As of last week, there were 29 complaints on file with IPL for 1242, dating back to April 20, 2004. The owners, listed as Karen Faulkner and her husband, Audrey, were cited for a dilapidated exterior, overgrowth, trash and other debris — mattresses, for instance — in the yard. The house was never repaired after a March 2004 fire. Eventually IPL stepped in, dispatching Public Works and spending $498.48 to clean up around the house — at taxpayer expense. And although the police were called 16 times to come to 1242, for reported break-ins and disorderly conduct, among other things, no reports were filed.

The house at 1244 is a different story. Between May 5, 2005, and Oct. 30, there were 31 complaints with IPL. The Faulkners were slapped with nearly $2,000 in citations, still unpaid, according to IPL records. Many of the same overgrowth and trash issues existed at all three houses. This building was also damaged in the fire at 1246 last month; no repair work has begun.

On Jan. 12, IPL posted a notice to vacate 1244. According to several neighbors, however, it took Metro some five months to adequately board up the house. In the interim, neighbors said people continued to live there, simply removing the order to vacate each time it was posted. Herndon said he saw five feet of trash piled in the first floor. He and a handful of other neighbors also said that as of March, two months after the vacate order, a man was living on the third floor, heating it with a stove.

Christopher White, who also lives in the 100 block of West Ormsby, which is perpendicular to South First Street, has been monitoring the weirdness at these houses on his own. A resident of Old Louisville for 25 years, he said he’s seen drug dealing and use, probably crack, at both 1242 and 1244. As well, several people have lived in tents in the back yards for short periods of time.

Police records going back to 2004 show 49 incidents reported at 1244, including general nuisances, break-ins, gunshots, domestic trouble, stabbing, fights, drunkenness and disorderly conduct. However, there were only six reports filed. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t something going on, said Officer Phil Russell, LMPD spokesman. Just that whatever it was either had dissipated or was resolved on the scene.

Of the three, however, 1246 has the worst record with police (along with 17 IPL violations, similar to the others). From March 2004 until it burned, there were 90 instances where the police were called, for everything from gunshots and fights to stabbing, domestic violence and disorderly conduct. Reports were filed for six of those incidents.

Six neighbors I spoke with confirmed hearing an altercation at 1246, where Karen Faulkner had also been living, just hours before the fire.

It would get more complicated. The mortgage company foreclosed on 1244 on April 19. Property records list U.S. Bank National Association as the trustee for the house, meaning the bank offered financial backing for the mortgage company on this property, but shares no ownership responsibility, according to spokesperson Steve Dale. He was able to locate the mortgage company that initiated the foreclosure, which he said is GMAC Mortgage, but I couldn’t get anyone there on the phone by press time.

A month later, on May 22, 1246 fell into foreclosure. Property records show that Deutsche Bank is the trustee, although I couldn’t determine which mortgage company had initiated foreclosure proceedings in this case. John Gallagher, a spokesperson for the bank, sent a statement via e-mail that included this: “The trust company has no ownership stake or beneficial interest in the underlying loans of a securitization, nor is it responsible for foreclosures or selling foreclosed properties.”

That means this: Property records show trustees as owners, but trustees bear zero responsibility in maintenance or answering official complaints from a city agency like IPL. Those who’ve lost their homes to foreclosure have no stake or reason to maintain them — and most often don’t have the money to do so. Also, as in the case of the Faulkners, some owners strip the house of everything valuable, down to the windows, and sell it. Neighbors remembered seeing yard sales for several months after 1244 was foreclosed on.

“It just seems like there should be somebody responsible for upkeep and safety,” Jaworski said. “There should be some kind of action plan for concerned neighbors and citizens to do something.”
That is, something more than calling IPL to complain. Bill Shreck, the agency’s director, said he’s frustrated with the loopholes and muddy legal ground when it comes to foreclosures.

“We always try to work with the neighborhoods as well as the owners to do what is right,” he said. “And we have to comply with the law. There’s a lot of people that believe we can do things that legally we can’t do.”
The process at IPL is simple: Respond to a complaint, set a re-inspection date for compliance and, if necessary, issue a citation. If the owner ignores it, repeat the process. After three times, it could become a criminal proceeding, with fines or even jail time. Or the whole thing could continue like that, in some other legal galaxy where nobody listens, takes responsibility or generally cares — except, that is, the neighbors.
“We want, more than anyone, to get compliance,” Shreck said.

Herndon and other neighbors offered to buy the three properties and never got responses from the banks or the Faulkners. Since the fire, they’ve informally put their offers back on the table, including for the lot where 1246 once stood, which a local real estate company is looking after. A spokesperson there told me he didn’t want to talk on record about it, and that the company is waiting for “the bank” to make a move.
That could mean virtually anything.

It seems obvious that Faulkner got in over her head, whether financially or just in general. However, since the fire, she has no permanent address, her phone number has been disconnected, and she’s been generally incommunicado. Neighbors have reported seeing her around the other properties, and I’ve spent some time there over the last month trying to find her, but to no avail.