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Move afoot to bulldoze havens for criminals

| Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The house a couple of doors away from Tina Hoppe's place in the city's Spring Garden neighborhood burned late last month. Hoppe was lucky. Her rowhouse in the North Side sustained minor smoke damage.

And even though the loss of the abandoned property in the 900 block of Itin Street should bring solace to the neighborhood, Hoppe is worried.

"That place had homeless people breaking down the plywood covering the doors and windows, and the people renting next door had knocked a hole in the wall between the two properties so they could do God-knows-what in there.

"These abandoned properties are ruining it for everybody," she said.

At the North Side's Zone 1 police station, Lt. Michael Piasecki confirmed the hole in the wall at 946 Itin, a building familiar to police because a decomposed corpse was found there days before the Feb. 25 fire.

Piasecki said homeless people frequently set fires in abandoned homes to keep warm, and it's not unusual for squatters to drag old mattresses and other junk inside.

It doesn't take much time to destroy a house in flames, but the city seems to have nothing but time when it comes to removing such safety and urban-blight issues.

Fewer than three years ago, then-Mayor Bob O'Connor targeted such properties. In June 2006, city work crews, armed with money from a skin-tight budget, set out under O'Connor's direction to board up as many open windows and gaping doors as possible.

Their efforts began because of a fire in an abandoned Lawrenceville house in May 2006. In that case, neighbors — quite rightly — feared such fires could spread to their homes.

Since then, the city hasn't had money available to seriously tackle the hundreds of similar properties dotting neighborhoods from Hazelwood to Spring Garden. Now, though, Tina Hoppe's community may be set for some help, says City Councilwoman Darlene Harris.

"There've been problems when city crews find asbestos in these buildings because that means it costs more to tear them down and they ran out of money," she said.

Crews are scheduled to demolish 120 abandoned homes this year.

"Hopefully, the North Side will lose 60," Harris said.

Her district covers Hoppe's neighborhood, part of a larger area with 249 abandoned properties.

Harris says her office routinely receives calls about "junkies and homeless people squatting inside these buildings, and alleged drug activity," which lowers property values and creates a public safety hazard.

At this rate, it might takes several years before neighbors don't have to keep watch on abandoned houses along with their own, but at least this is a start.

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