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Tales of squatters, crime, and new life in Charleston's vacant homes

Troublesome Houses

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The vacant house at 47½ Line St. was an architectural study in doom. Broken windows were open to intruders and the elements, the yard was a sea of discarded clothes and warped plywood, and the interior was in shambolic decay. On July 20, the unthinkable happened inside its buckling walls.

An hour before sunrise, according to a police report, a woman with lacerations on her upper thigh stood naked in the downtown street and flagged down a passing trucker. After police arrived and wrapped her in a blanket, she told them that a man had bought her a beer, convinced her to follow him into the empty house on Line Street to drink it, and then threatened to break her neck while he raped her. She finally escaped through an open window.

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(UPDATE: Police charged a North Charleston man with sexual assault in the case on Oct. 4. Read more here.)

Later that same day, a demolition crew arrived to start tearing down the house at 47½ Line St. The seeds of the 92-year-old house's destruction had been sown three years ago, when a code enforcement officer from the City of Charleston first contacted the owner about violations on the property, but the timing made it look like an act of divine vengeance.

According to Dan Riccio, the city's director of livability, there are 360 vacant properties within city limits, almost all of them on the peninsula. For Riccio, a retired cop who spent 23 years at the Charleston Police Department, the work isn't just about keeping up appearances in a tourist town — it's about preventing crime. He and seven code enforcement officers pay regular visits to empty houses to make sure the owners are keeping up with the city's minimum standards: No Trespassing signs on the property, sound structural integrity, no gaps where rain can get in, and boards over the doors and windows to keep out intruders.

"It's a neverending battle," Riccio says, "because we can get a house boarded, but the criminal element's going to break in again." Riccio has worked with the Livability Court for its entire 10-year existence, first as a police officer assigned to enforce court orders and then as a civilian director, and he has seen what goes wrong when vagrants take up residence in the Holy City's troubled houses. The problem becomes especially dangerous in the winter months, when people try to set fires indoors to keep warm. This past winter, the Charleston Fire Department investigated fires in vacant houses at 61 Amherst St. and 55 Poinsett St. and determined that they were started accidentally by vagrants.

47½ Line St.

Hover over the photo see the before and after. (Photos courtesy Google Earth, Paul Bowers)

In his sparsely decorated office within the Department of Planning, Preservation, and Sustainability on Calhoun Street, Riccio pulls up the case file for 47½ Line St., which he describes as "a unique situation."

"Believe it or not, the house was inhabited until July of 2009 by the owner," he says. "She's an elderly woman. She was hoarding, and that's what started the complaint." His department responds to calls from concerned neighbors all the time, but this case was particularly egregious. When the inspector arrived, he found that the house had no sewer connection, no running water, and no electricity. The house was also infested with vermin and insects.

At this point, Riccio says, Adult Protective Services got involved, eventually removing the woman and placing her in the care of some family members. From then on, the house was technically unoccupied, although homeless people came and went. This year, police got a few calls about the house: On May 9, a passerby found a flaming mattress in the backyard, and on July 23, a naked man and woman were found trespassing while the house was in the process of demolition.

Back in 2009, city building officials took a closer look at the house and determined that, because of its structural damage, it was a public nuisance. But somewhere along the way, code enforcement officers lost contact with the owner and her family. When Riccio's office finally tracked down the relatives, they claimed the owner was dead — a claim that later proved to be false. Finally, Riccio says he arranged a meeting with the owner's grandson and apprised him of the situation: "I explained to him that we needed to do something with this house, and there were two ways we could do it: He could take the initiative and hire a contractor and have the house demolished himself, or we would have to take him to court and have the judge order the city to demolish the property and place a lien on the property."

The family got a demolition permit from the city on July 18 and hired Jake Smalls Construction to do the job. When Smalls showed up at the house on July 20 to start tearing it down, he took a look and agreed with the city's assessment: This was no place for human beings. "You couldn't live in it," Smalls says. "All the sides were caving in and all, and the top was getting ready to collapse." One member of the family said the owner was his aunt and confirmed that she was no longer living in the house. On the phone, he agreed to call the City Paper at a later time and discuss the details of the house's demolition, but he never did so.

As anyone who has dealt with Charleston's Board of Architectural Review knows, it is no easy thing to renovate a historic house (that is, one that is older than 75 years) — let alone tear one down. And Smalls says he has charged everywhere from $3,500 to $25,000 for demolitions, depending on size and location. But on the lightly traveled block of Line Street between King and Meeting streets, just behind the Post and Courier office building, the little white house's days were numbered. The problems that brought about its demise were structural in nature, but the neighbors had noticed other problems.

Robert Godzinski, a student who moved into the house next door to 47½ Line St. with some roommates in June, says he saw people filtering in and out of the house, and he even called the police one night when he saw a woman walk in, followed shortly thereafter by a man. The next morning, he ventured over to the house and took a look inside.

Godzinski trails off at first while trying to describe what he saw. "It was a decrepit scene that ... I have honestly never seen anything as bad as the inside of that house," he says. "It was fully furnished and everything, but there was just like six inches of garbage, rotting food, broken glass, needles, beds, mattresses, bloodstains. It was awful."

227 Nassau St.

Charleston's Livability Court was the first of its kind in the country when it started in 2002, born out of the belief that code enforcement and quality-of-life issues ought to be dealt with seriously, not brushed aside by a busy municipal court system. It has its own courtroom and a dedicated arbiter, Judge Michael Molony, to sort out tangled issues of preservation and public safety in a city enamored of its historic homes.

Dan Riccio says the court sees a lot of repeat offenders, and for that reason, he keeps a map in his office updated with color-coded stars for each of the city's vacant properties: green for good condition, yellow for fair, red for critical. There are a few noticeable star clusters, including in North Central and on the Eastside, and most lie north of Mary Street. None are south of Broad, and there are only a couple in West Ashley and one on James Island. Code enforcement officers patrol specific beats in city-owned pickup trucks, keeping tabs on vacant houses to stay on top of violations.

On Sept. 5, a code enforcement officer checked in on a vacant house at 227 Nassau St., a one-story house near the northern end of the Eastside that had a previous violation in September 2011. At the time, the owner had complied and boarded the house up, but now, the boards had been taken off the doors and windows, and there was a gap between the roof and the top of the wall where rain could get in.

So the department contacted the new owner, licensed builder Jerry Fisher Jr., to let him know he had 15 days to fix the problem. Fisher, a Burke High School graduate who lives in Columbia and has an apartment in West Ashley, said he did not realize the extent of the house's structural damage when he bought it eight months ago, intending to fix it up and market it as low- to moderate-income housing.

"The whole outside was falling off," Fisher says. "I knew it was falling off, but it was boarded up, and when I took the boards down, you could see from the outside to the floor." As of Sept. 20, the boards remained in a heap in the side yard, and the doors and windows remained uncovered. Fisher had until Sept. 25 to make the fix.

5 Kyle Place

Hover over the photo see the before and after. Photos courtesy Dept. of Planning, Preservation, and Livability, Jonathan Boncek

Before she moved to Charleston from Nashville in July, Kindra Westercamp was nervous about the house her boyfriend, Justin Kahle, had picked out for them to rent.

"She Google Earthed it and was like, 'Oh my gosh,' " recalls Kahle, who had moved in a month previous to the house at 5 Kyle Place, just west of Rutledge Avenue. But he assured her, "It's not really like that anymore."

When Kahle and Westercamp moved in, they were the house's first tenants in 10 years, and the house looked much better than in the out-of-date Google street view. To this day, the Google car hasn't driven down Kyle Place to get a new shot of the house, and the image is indeed frightening to behold. Windows are busted open, a screen door sits unhinged on the front porch, and if you look closely enough, you can see the slight sideways lean of the entire structure. Kahle says the picture Westercamp saw "looked like a Katrina house."

In March 2011, a code enforcement officer stopped by the house after a neighbor reported that people were squatting on the premises. After conducting an inspection, Livability contacted the house's owner, Anthony Nelson, to tell him what he already knew: The house was unsafe. "I'd tried to tear it down because it was in pretty bad shape, but because of the city regulations, I couldn't," Nelson says. "They said it wasn't bad enough based on an engineer's report."

Nelson, who lives in Maryland, inherited the 1940 house from his grandmother in 2001. He rented it out to tenants for the first two years, but he stopped after conditions deteriorated in 2002. Termites had gnawed away at the frame, old copper pipes and sheetrock needed replacing, the electrical wiring needed to be modernized, and of course the exterior was in dire need of a paint job. Around 2006, Nelson started looking into demolition options, but he says the city denied his permit request.

By the time Riccio's department contacted Nelson in 2011, Nelson was already considering the renovation route. He had tried to get financing to renovate in 2008, but it was just after the housing bubble burst, and he had a difficult time securing a loan. He complied with the city's orders in 2011 and boarded up the openings, and then he finally got the money to hire contractors Johnny Whirl and Leon Alston to do the renovation.

To Riccio, the saga of 5 Kyle Place has a happy ending. "This was a success story because he boarded it like he was supposed to, took care of all the problems on the property, and decided to renovate," Riccio says. And the results really are impressive: A shored-up foundation, an interior overhaul with new appliances, and a sunny coat of yellow paint on the outside make for a two-story home that gives the surrounding homes a run for their money in the quaintness department.

Nelson is pleased with the outcome too, but it wasn't his first choice. "As far as I was concerned, it was going to cost a lot of money to rehab it versus just tearing it down and starting from scratch," Nelson says. But by 2011, not many options were left to him.

In his office and in the field, Riccio negotiates sometimes-contentious dealings between city and citizen. For an ex-cop, he's not physically intimidating, but he is, to a certain extent, the law. And between the rights of property owners and the demands of upkeep in an old Southern city buffeted by storms and the tiny battles of development, he walks a tricky line. He knows the protocol perhaps better than anyone in the city, and he knows a basic fact about life in Charleston:

"You can't just go whack down a house."

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