Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Burning Down the House

My husband and I live in an older middle class neighborhood, nothing fancy but a safe and comfortable place to live. Every once in a while, one of the houses goes vacant. Several years ago the house next door to us went vacant when the owners built up some gambling debts. They took out a second mortgage for all they could get and fled. The house stood vacant for a couple of years while the two mortgage companies fought over who would get what from a sale.

At one point my husband heard meowing inside the house. He peeked in the front door and saw a black kitten. We have no idea how it got inside. Hubby tracked down the mortgage company and called to tell them there was a cat trapped in the house. Meantime he managed to find a space in the door to toss pellets of dry food into the house for the cat.

When days passed and nothing was done, we decided to take matters into our own hands. The back windows were boarded up, but it would be easy enough to unscrew one of the boards and get the cat out. (“Honestly officer, we were just rescuing a cat.”) As it turned out, all we had to do was loosen the corner of one of the boards. The window behind was open and kitty squeezed out and made a run for it.

Eventually the two mortgage companies made nice and put the house up for sale. Thanks to us, the house was not pervaded with the smell of decomposing kitty and eventually sold to our neighbor, a single dad with a motorcycle which he sometimes rides to work at 5:30 AM. Did I mention the driveway is parallel to my bedroom wall? Of course, I’m sure my cats have been up on his roof pounding around a time or two, so I can’t complain.

Then another house went vacant about 4 or 5 blocks from us, just a block from the elementary school. Apparently there was a similar situation with multiple mortgages and owners who left saying “Not my problem”. Neighbors painted “Sell Me!” on the plywood covering the carport entrance and took turns cutting the grass. Finally there was good news. A realtor took an interest in the house, found a buyer, managed to track down the mortgage holder, and began negotiations over the price. The mortgage holder was holding out for more than the buyer wanted to pay, but we had hopes.

So that’s where things were one night about six months ago when hubby and I came driving home from an outing and spotted a few fire trucks in the street by the school. We parked the car at home and strolled down to see what was going on. A fire had just been put out in the vacant house. The exterior looked intact, but we couldn’t see the interior. So the next morning, we walked back to see it in daylight.

The entire roof was caved in, and the windows were falling out of their frames. We were puzzled. Had it been that bad the night before and we just couldn’t see it? Had the back part of the roof been damaged and the rest caved in overnight? A neighbor soon came by with the answer. A second fire had broken out at 5 AM. We later learned the fires were the result of arson. The case is still unsolved.

So there was a burned out vacant house, sitting one block from an elementary school. The vacant house was bad enough, but this was worse. Of course, the city-parish* had the power to condemn it and either force the owner to tear it down or do it themselves and bill the owner. The problem is, money. The city-parish is months if not years behind on clearing properties that have already been condemned.

A month or so ago, we saw a notice on the door proclaiming that the owner had a certain time limit to clean up the property.  Hubby was pessimistic. He believed the owner would promise to do it, would have some song and dance about why it couldn’t be done right away, and would drag the process out for months, if not years.

Monday John drove by and saw a city-parish inspector at the house. We drove by today to see what was going on, and the house had been bulldozed and workers were loading the debris into bins for removal. As of this evening, all the debris is gone, but the carport and a small outbuilding are still standing. (Friday, October 21 edit: all the structures are now gone.)

So that’s one hazard gone. There’s an election coming up Saturday, but the council members aren’t running, and the council elections are the ones usually preceded by street signs and potholes being repaired. I suppose someone in the city might have been alerted to the hazards of having a burned out house sitting a block from a school, but it didn’t seem to worry them before. I’m glad they did something about the house and guess I shouldn’t fret about the reason.

What really puzzles me is the behavior of the mortgage holders on both these properties. It took years in each case for them to stop wrangling with each other and put the houses up for sale. That had to cost money. The mortgage holder of the second house, who held out for more money, now only has a building lot to sell instead of a house. The house may have been insured, but what insurance company is going to pay out in an unsolved arson case? 

I think there is a proverb about not cutting off your nose to spite your face, and another one about not needing to burn down the house to get rid of rats. Maybe some people need a little more proverbial wisdom.

*Louisiana does not have counties, we have parishes. Usually each parish has its own government, but since the city of Baton Rouge takes up most of the parish of East Baton Rouge, the governing body has been merged into a city-parish government.


  1. Hi! Part-time Slacktivite here (J. Enigma).

    I live in Flint, MI. Same exact problem, but on a much larger scale. There are whole tracts of the city that are nothing but abandoned houses; because Flint is some million-and-a-half dollars in debt, houses like the ones you describe are the rule, not the exception. And the banks refuse to take care of them, so they become massive, boarded up, decayed eyesores covered in graffiti and gang signs with lawns filled with weeds that go up to your waist, if not higher.

    The banks would bicker with the city and with each over who would take care of it. They had no problem throwing owner out; but they didn't want to take care of the houses. What ended up happening was about a year or two ago, there was a huge rash of fire outbreaks. In one night, during the peak, we had something like 30 fires throughout the city.

    The people in the neighborhoods were almost certainly the ones burning the houses down. And honestly, I understand and empathize with the situation - after all, decayed and empty houses attract a lot of nasty stuff, and not just crime (rats, roaches, and other vermin). The arsons stopped at the end of the year, and there's still a lot of empty houses in the city. But a good hunk of them are burned out scrap heaps.

    Your story reminded me of that. Burning houses and abandoned lots... *dries a tear* sounds just like home.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Enigma. I do recall the name.

    I think I had heard about the situation in Flint. It's sad and scary when that happens. We do have areas of our city with more abandoned homes than in my neighborhood, but nothing like you are describing. We also do have a few more vacant houses in our neighborhood, but at least they are being kept up (so far).

    I just wish people would realize how much our own prosperity depends on our neighbor's. I'm all for personal responsibility as opposed to personal irresponsibility, but not as opposed to civic responsibility, an almost forgotten term.

  3. Old houses should be given more care since they have heritage attached to them. In case a fire breaks out and there's not much that can be done, it is important to remember that all is not lost. The house can still be repaired, but the personal effects cannot be brought back. As a precautionary measure, keep them in a fireproof safe.