Hearing Them Out: Battling Blight at City's New Public Officer Hearings

It's mid-morning on Friday, and the small assembly room at the City-County Building has about 20 people in it—more if you count the kids. There's a large projection screen in front of the two historical paintings, and Robert Moyers, the city's manager of Codes Enforcement, is ready to go with his presentation.

The slides click into action. First up is a picture of a yard filled with piles and piles of trash. There's a dilapidated trailer in the background. The pictures that follow show a house with a crumbling foundation, a porch with no railings, and electrical problems. Moyers says the buildings on the property are structurally non-compliant with the city's building codes. He requests a 60-day repair-or-demolition order.

Earlier this year, this would be happening before the Better Building Board, a community board consisting of five Knoxville residents. But after City Council passed changes to the way that Knoxville handles blight, per Mayor Madeline Rogero's request, the monthly hearings on condemning properties now are held in front of just one man: David Brace, the city's Director of Public Service.

It's been three months now since the city changed its procedures, and Brace couldn't be happier with the results.

"It allows our staff to take action quicker in the field," Brace says.

Moyers is a fan of the new proceedings as well, which keeps the Better Building Board as kind of a court of appeals for the condemnation process. (Further appeals can be made to the Knox County Chancery Court.) There are only two appeals this month in front of the BBB, whereas there are 25 properties for Brace to address at this meeting.

It's a process that runs the gamut of horrifying, depressing, and surreal over the course of the hour and a half the meeting takes. It turns out there are two families living on that first property that Moyers brings up, one in the trailer and one in the house. One of the families is renting-to-own the property, and although legally it is the property owner who is responsible for repairing any blighted conditions, the tenant doesn't seem to understand this. She says that her husband is working on the house, and that the trash in the yard is there because they tore down a rotting garage that was covering it.

"This is us in the process of repairing it," she says. "We would like the department to work with us."

"How many children are living on the property?" Brace asks. "There are kids in the house. It's unsafe and unhealthy." He eventually issues a 120-day repair-or-demolition notice.

Moyers quickly clicks to the next property. It's a burnout, and the owner has no problem tearing it down. She says she had to wait for the insurance to determine it was an arson first. The house had been empty for a while, stripped and vandalized, before it was finally set on fire in June.

"You've highlighted why we have this public process," Brace says. He explains that by the city's stepping up its fight against empty and blighted properties, it can prevent things like this from happening in the future. "Vacant dilapidated property attracts crime," he adds. And it's on to the next one.

There are properties whose taxes have not been paid in years. There are properties that are crumbling and filled with debris. There are sanitary issues so disgusting that Moyers declines to name them. There are houses that have been placarded, and placarded again. It's just a normal meeting.

Not all of the property owners are present to defend themselves or explain the sites' condition. Those are the cases that go by in a flash, Moyers rapidly scrolling through pictures while Brace rattles off a repair-or-demolition order at a speed not unlike an auctioneer's.

One property owner. Curtis Phibbs, has an American Indian lawyer, Blue Sky Rising, represent him at the hearing. Rising says that Phibbs is afraid to leave the house in case it will be demolished in his absence, although after the meeting there is some discussion as to whether Rising is, in fact, Phibbs.

Moyers says the property was first inspected in 2000 and first placarded in 2003. "To date, none of the repairs have been made," Moyers says.

Phibbs only bought the property last year—"for 200 ounces of silver," Rising says—and he's been living in it since, despite its lack of working plumbing or electricity. Brace says Phibbs is breaking the law—the property has not been allowed to be occupied for a decade. Rising says Phibbs was once homeless and doesn't care. Brace suggests a Community Development loan. Rising says Phibbs "is a proud man" who refuses to take on debt. Brace issues a 120-day repair-or-demolition notice. As Rising leaves the room, it seems clear that no one feels confident the property will be repaired in that time. It's a weird scene, a little funny, but mostly sad.

Still, Brace is confident about one thing: What he's doing in these monthly meetings is helping neighborhoods all over the city.

"I feel good about where we're going," he says.