Jefferson City is spending thousands of dollars each year trying to maintain more than a dozen vacant properties near the historic district of downtown. And city leaders say the properties have become a hotbed for criminal activity. The city is taking the owner of the buildings to court to try to solve the problem.
Mature trees and hundred-year-old buildings line the Capitol Avenue Historic District, the area between Adams Street and the Missouri State Penitentiary. There are some notable architectural styles: Spanish Revival, Victorian and Colonial, to name a few. This neighborhood is minutes from downtown Jefferson City and the state Capitol, but not all the properties are in good condition. A porch roof is close to collapsing at one house. Vines overtake the front steps of another. A wrought iron fence is warped from time and weather. And doors and windows are boarded up on several old homes.
Barbara Buescher owns 19 abandoned properties in this area, and 2 others in other areas of town.
Bryan Wolford is the head attorney for Jefferson City. He says the city is suing Buescher, claiming she owes the city more than $27,000 that the city has spent to address problems at the properties when they violated city code.
“They’re barely standing, and we’ve had to secure the area around there to keep people who would wander on there and people on the sidewalks safe from any potential falling debris. She’s had trees and branches that have been down that we’ve had to cart off and carry away, Wolford said.
The City of Jefferson sued Barbara Buescher for lack of payment on property tax liens. Those are costs that have accumulated every time the Department of Planning and Protective Services has to spruce up or board up abandoned properties.
“When these buildings sit unsecured, it’s a violation of the city code, so we secure and board them up and we assess those costs against her,” Wolford said.
The charges include covering doors and windows with wood, painting, cutting grass when it becomes 12 inches high, removing weeds and even demolishing a property in the case of an arson.
Cathy Bordner is a member of the Historic City of Jefferson organization. She lives a few blocks away from many of the properties. She said she’s happy the city is taking action against Buescher, but said she’s worried that the process will be so drawn out that many buildings will become damaged almost beyond repair.
“They’re in such horrible shape,” Bordner said. “The roofs are broken, water’s coming in and it’s going to cost too much money to renovate them.”
The Department of Planning and Protective Services marks “no trespassing” in red across the boarded-up doors of the abandoned buildings. But that doesn’t necessarily stop people from getting in if they are searching for warmth, shelter, or a place to commit crimes.
Wolford said that homeless people stay in the buildings, especially during winter.
“What they’ve become is what’s called an attractive nuisance to vagrants and folks like that who will go in, squat in these places. There’s some crimes going on. There was one that burnt in 2012 that there was a stabbing in. There have been rapes happening in those,” Wolford said.
Resident Mary Schantz also recognizes a safety risk.
“You have a potential for drugs. You have a potential for teens and unsupervised people hanging out there, getting into mischief, or getting into perhaps even more than mischief,” Schantz said.
Schantz also says the taxpayer-funded resources necessary for the upkeep and supervision of abandoned properties could be used in a better way. She mentioned the amount of time that the police spend on patrolling the area and the city staff spends on code enforcement.
“It just compounds the amount of work in a tight budget. Jefferson City, like most cities, doesn’t have money to waste,” Schantz said.
The oldest home in the district is 105 Jackson Street. It was built in 1830. Buescher owns that property. Schantz said some of her properties housed key figures in Jefferson City’s history.
Bordner is a member of the Historic City of Jefferson. She says she is concerned about the neighborhood losing its historic value.
“The more buildings we lose, the less the historic character of the neighborhood is there, and that is all that that neighborhood has. The only thing going for that neighborhood from the Capitol to the prison is the fact that it’s got that character,” Bordner said.
Steve Dillane’s rental property is surrounded by abandoned buildings.
“I would rather see it revitalized,” Dillane said. “I hate seeing how the area has just become over the past ten years, all the buildings falling in on themselves.”
The City of Jefferson Historic Preservation Commission is proposing a new demolition ordinance for the city council to consider. Schantz is the secretary of the group. She says the ordinance would allow the city to enact fines and take legal action against owners of properties that fall under the term “demolition by neglect.”
“If those fees went up I think property owners might be more motivated to say, ‘OK, I am gonna go ahead and sell this property’ or ‘OK, it is worth it to me to refurnish this property—to bring it back up to code, to a livable standard,” Schantz said.
Dillane could be one future buyer.
“If her properties ever did go on the market, there are a few I wouldn’t mind having and revitalizing,” he said.
Bordner said the city is also not collecting nearly enough property taxes on the properties that it should, because both Buescher’s properties and the ones nearby have much lower value because of the state of disrepair.
“We are not getting the taxes that we need for our school system, our city, our county,” she said.
Bordner and her husband renovated a building and put it up for sale or lease a few blocks down from many abandoned properties. Bordner says the house has only been occupied for 18 months in the last five years. They recently moved into the house because no one would buy or rent it, even with them lowering the price.
“A lot of the people that were looking at the building talked about Mrs. Buescher’s boarded-up buildings up the block,” Bordner said. “You walk out in the front porch and, you know, you just see blight.”
Dillane said his tenants hate the look of it even more than he does because they have to see it every day.
Wolford said the city is conducting a blight study to determine the negative effects abandoned properties are having on surrounding houses. Dillane said he tells people the neighborhood is not as bad as it looks.
“It’s really a nice neighborhood,” he said. “It just needs a lot of work done to it to bring it back to where it used to be.”
The lawsuit against Buescher began in 2014 when Buescher owed the city over $49,000. The judge set aside default judgment in 2015, and the city of Jefferson created an amended petition because Buescher had paid off some of the original tax liens.
Wolford said if the taxes aren’t paid three years after the city performed certain maintenance, the Cole County collector could auction off her properties. But that hasn’t happened yet.
“She pays the Friday before the buildings go up for sale on the courthouse steps,” Wolford said.
Wolford says the city wants to collect all the money that she owes it from 2013 to the present. He says this means the city won’t have to wait for the three year time limit to expire before Buescher pays the fees. Buescher and her attorney declined to speak to KBIA.