From nuisance to normal

City team offers a pathway for problem property owners

Chap Erpelding and Holly Dodge

The small two-story beige house with blue trim in Brookside was a fixer-upper when a young tech professional bought it in 2008. But he considered it a good investment and started dry wall repairs—until he lost his job a few months later when the economy collapsed. Embarrassed, he moved into a nearby apartment and continued to make minimal property tax payments. He never made any further improvements, and neighbors became concerned as the outside surface deteriorated and the weeds grew knee-high.

Six years later after a series of citations, the house made its way onto the City’s receivership list of vacant nuisance structures. These are buildings that are considered a public detriment, whether or not they’re in the process of foreclosure.

That’s when the dynamic teamwork of the “problem house squad” kicked in. First, a crackerjack paralegal in the Law Department tracked down the man’s phone number (a process that ranges from easy to arduous depending on an individual’s paper trail or Internet presence). Then Chad Erpelding, a code enforcement officer in the Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department, called him on the phone to chat and arrange for a face-to-face meeting at the property. At that point Holly Dodge, an associate city attorney in the Law Department, joined in. She likes to be part of the onsite visits when Erpelding discusses plans with owners of nuisance properties.

“We created this program together—Chad and I,” says Dodge. “We do a lot of educating. Our formula is to give the owners a chance by explaining the issues and the outcomes. We tell people if you want to work with us, here’s our intent. If not, we’ll probably see you in court where you’ll face a forced property sale.”

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The Brookside house had a happy ending. The owner agreed to fix up the property enough to put it back on the market and it sold in 45 days.

“The guy was relieved, and the neighbors were ecstatic,” says Dodge, who likens her teammate’s role in these types of cases to that of a social worker. “Instead of making threats, Chad helps people think through the problem and prioritize. Not everyone likes what we have to say, but we’re all trying to get to a certain point.”

Most of the vacant nuisance properties have been ignored for several years by the time the Dodge-Erpelding squad (nicknamed “the dynamic duo” by the city manager) enters the picture. Foundation issues, rotten roofs, mold, water damage, plumbing, electrical and HVAC often must be repaired in both commercial and residential buildings. “Whew! We’ve seen some good stuff,” says Dodge, while Erpelding notes they often come across vagrants living inside.

Although the properties may need similar repairs, they each have a unique situation, he says. “I try to get the backstory and find out if it’s a business gone wrong or a personal problem. I wear my heart on my sleeve—that’s how I relate to the owner.”

Erpelding’s previous job in construction was a helpful experience when he joined the City five years ago, and his recent training through the University of Kansas Emerging Leadership Academy boosted his professionalism. “Being able to see the health and safety of the neighborhood improve makes me want to do this,” he says.

Dodge began working as an attorney for the City 18 years ago, moving to Colorado for a time before returning to City Hall. The procedures she and Erpelding have developed for the receivership program are now being applied to the chronic nuisance program which involves properties associated with a high crime rate. As she puts it, “We take a holistic approach, but we also have a hammer to back up our position. Our goal is to empower property owners to be more responsible as we focus on making the city a better place to live.”