116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A rental house gutted in a 2017 fire that since has been an eyesore — not to mention a safety and health hazard — in the Wellington Heights neighborhood finally will be demolished in a few months and replaced with a new affordable home thanks to a nonprofit that helps men retool their job and life skills.
The property at 1504 Sixth Ave. SE will be demolished as soon as the building and demolition permits are secured, said Ron Ziegler, executive director of Hope Community Development Association. The Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit has two purposes for building the new home and putting it on the market: to help revitalize the neighborhood and provide Hope Community participants — men facing employment barriers — with job training.
Ziegler said part of the Christian-based nonprofit’s mission is to rehab properties or build from scratch, like in this case, and make homes affordable for lower-income families. The organization has built or renovated 11 properties in neighborhoods including Wellington Heights, Oakhill Jackson and Mound View since Hope Community was created in 2011.
The organization received a $100,000 federal grant, administered through the city, that will help make this house a reality. The nonprofit worked with the city after it received the funds to meet the federal requirements.
“I drove by this one every day and knew it would take a lot of grant money,” Ziegler said. “I knew there would be challenges of how to make it work economically. Most of the rehab will be done by the men in the training program but we have to sub out some work — electrical and other skilled work.”
About $65,000 will go to this project and the rest will be used on another house Hope Community is working on, Ziegler said. The demolition likely will be more costly on the burned property because of the fire damage. There are environmental and asbestos concerns, he noted.
The city of Cedar Rapids was aware of the demolition expenses needed, which could be significant — about $20,000 or more, and had been working with the owners, Deborah and Edward Morehouse, who lived in Guttenberg, to take care of the demolition themselves, said Kevin Ciabatti, director of the city’s Building Services.
It should be the owner’s responsibility to demolish the property, he said, but if no progress has been made the city could have gone to court and asked for a demolition order.
According to the city’s timeline of this property, the fire was Oct. 6, 2017, and the rental was vacant at the time. An inspection was made and the owners were notified a few days later to repair or demolish it.
A final order to repair or demolish was issued to the owners in January 2018. The city allows owners some time to get permits and shut off utilities and other preliminary work, Ciabatti said. But the owners had issues with an excavation company they hired and ran into some sewer issues, according to the timeline.
In November 2018, the city filed a municipal infraction and took the Morehouses to small claims court, according to court documents. The owners didn’t show up for court dates, and in May 2019 a judge found them in default and assessed them a $3,000 fine.
At some point in 2019, their son got involved and eventually found a buyer — Hope Community, which purchased the property for $400 in March, according to the timeline and the Linn County Assessor’s Office documents.
Tracking dilapidated properties
Emily Breen, the city’s public services communications specialist, said the process takes time to deal with vacant and dilapidated properties. In July 2015, the city added a chapter to the housing code to track these properties.
There have been 114 vacant properties documented, as of April 1, each in varying degrees of compliance, Breen said. The city works with the owners on a case-by-case basis. Many times, the property changes owners; permits allow up to one year to make repairs; the court allows time to make repairs, which can be extended for a legitimate need; and court authorization is required to demolish homes — typically reserved for houses in the worst conditions.
“Property owners get a lot of opportunities and there are a lot of protections for property owners,” Breen said.
Between March 2016 and last month, not including derecho-related demolitions, there have been 65 structures in Cedar Rapids up for demolition or restoration and all those led to demolition, Ciabatti noted. Of those, 35 property owners complied and demolished the properties themselves, and the city received a court order to demolish 13. The remaining cases are still in progress.
Ziegler said neighbors will start seeing some progress once the burned house is demolished in a few months. But Hope Community’s house building projects usually take longer than usual because men in the training program aren’t skilled builders and construction workers. There are only seven men in the program, along with a skilled construction manager and supervisor. The house construction may take about a year, he estimated.
Ziegler hopes to add more men in the program, which would help on this project. There have been 54 men in all in the program since it started. They all had employment barriers, many of them just out of prison or community corrections.
Ziegler said about a fourth of those graduated the 12-month training program since it started. Some are successful and some are not. Hope Community has program houses where some of the participants live, which has aided in their progress by being in a stable and positive environment.
Many have felony backgrounds or struggle with substance abuse issues, Ziegler said. Most grew up in a poverty cycle with absent fathers or in “broken single parent” homes.
The program also focuses on teaching life skills — working on attendance, attitude and work ethic — to help the men succeed in society.
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