Odell Barnes Jr. of Gilbert, S.C., the self-proclaimed “Foreclosure King,” has more than 20 employees and owns thousands of houses nationwide. He considers the house at 1024 Azel Ave. he recently bought for $6,000 among the better properties in his company’s possession.
Yet Hamilton’s health commissioner declared it a public nuisance on July 12 — three days before Barnes bought it — and the city’s Nuisance Appeals Board on Oct. 13 accepted that finding, preparing the way for the house to be torn down unless Barnes appeals to Butler County Common Pleas Court.
“This is one of my better houses,” said Barnes, who purchases properties nationwide in bulk, hundreds of them a week, usually from banks. “God, if you tear this one down, you’re going to tear them all down.”
Barnes, who only owns the Azel property in Hamilton but has owned others in the past, says the city is moving too quickly and giving new owners of deteriorating buildings too little time to make repairs.
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The city is clamping down on negligent property owners. In past practice, family members or friends would sell houses among themselves to avoid demolitions and keep the clock running on orders. The city would declare a nuisance, and properties would quickly switch hands afterward, requiring the city to again declare a nuisance.
Previously, the city relied on the slow-moving court system to have buildings razed. The city earlier this year also approved legislation making it easier to demonstrate property owners — when they can be found — have received proper notice of hearings.
Barnes has offered to give Hamilton City Council free advice — as he said he has in Chicago and Cleveland in recent years — on how to return slowly deteriorating houses to productive use.
Mayor Patrick Moeller did not respond to a request for comment from this news outlet about Barnes’ offer.
Although Barnes bought the Azel Avenue property in July, it wasn’t until August that the former owner, Bank of America, deeded it to him, and gave him permission to enter the property.
Brett Sims, a non-lawyer who works in Barnes’ legal department, said Barnes is committed to rehabbing the building, if he has the opportunity to do so. It would be a shame, Sims and Barnes said, for a property in such sturdy condition to be demolished and become a grass-covered lot, when so many working poor people could use decent, affordable housing.
“We just want to fix it up. That’s it. Period,” Sims said. “Mr. Barnes wants to fix the nuisance, correct it.”
Barnes said after rehabbing houses, he puts them in the hands of prospective owners who would be classified as working poor, who can pay $300 to $400 per month toward ownership.
“It’s amazing what you can do with very little money, rehabbing something, and have a nice home — a home that isn’t costing somebody $1,000 a month, which for these poor people is out of the range,” Barnes said. “They need to be in something that costs $350 a month, or $400.”
Neighbor Holly Capers, who has lived next to the house off and on for 40 years, doesn’t have the confidence Barnes does that the building can be rehabbed. She notes the concrete back porch is sloped, gutters are falling off and most ominously, the building has been gutted.
“We’ve had numerous squatters in there,” she said. “A nuisance, that’s exactly what it is. You never know who’s doing what over here.”
Told of Barnes’ plan to rehab the building and sell it to a working, lower-income person, she said, “We have so many people who are homeless … If he can get in there and do what he says he can do, I give him a hand. That’s great.”
But she knows one thing: “I wouldn’t pay $6,000 for it, and I’d love to own a home someday. I wouldn’t have paid a dollar for it.”
Last week, the building’s front door was padlocked, but the window pane in the upper half of the door had a large hole in it.
When city officials were asked about the situation, Community Development Director Eugene “Bud” Scharf, who also serves as secretary of the Nuisance Appeals Board, replied on the city’s behalf: “Mr. Barnes will need to appeal the Board’s decision to the Court of Common Pleas. Again, since this is potential litigation, we will not comment on what Mr. Barnes may or may not do with the property.”
Sims acknowledged that city officials “get a lot of lip service that people are going to do this, and do that, but they don’t.” On the other hand, Barnes “has the total ability to go in and fix this home up. I just wish we could,” he said.
After rehabbing the house, “We would naturally sell it,” Sims said. “Hopefully give someone an opportunity to get a nice home at a fair price. And help create home ownership. That’s the goal.”
Ideas for restoring homes
Hamilton, like a lot of cities, is watching its properties deteriorate as older owners die or move out, leaving the buildings in the hands of family or others, Barnes said.
“You know, you’ve got to do something with the old houses,” Barnes said, suggesting that perhaps an organization start rehabbing homes, like Habitat for Humanity does with building new houses.
Actually, said Ed Lee, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati — which is celebrating its 30th anniversary in the region this year — said his agency has been rehabbing homes in the region during the past seven years, in addition to the better-known program of building new homes for people.
“In our 30-year history, in total we have completed 568 projects over the nine counties we serve in three states,” Lee said. “And I believe 58 of those are rehabs.”
The nearest rehab to Hamilton, Lee believes, was in Carlisle.
“We have a great relationship with the city of Hamilton, and have had support from the city of Hamilton in construction of new homes,” Lee said. “We’re always looking for more property to acquire, where we can build more, or rehab. And so we’ve looked for rehab property in the city of Hamilton that would be right for Habitat,” particularly around the area of Buckeye and 10th streets, “where we have built seven new homes, to continue to extend out in the neighborhood, to continue the revitalization effort.”
Among other things, habitat looks for houses in the 1,300-square-foot range that can be turned out for a total cost below about $100,000.
“Habitat has a long-term commitment to the city of Hamilton to try to create more home-ownership opportunities for low-income families, and to continue to revitalize neighborhoods in the community,” Lee said. “So we welcome the opportunity to participate in discussions, and actually make something happen, as well.”