City cracks down on three North Ivy Street houses notorious for crime and substandard conditions

Luanna Thoms has rented a dilapidated apartment on North Ivy Street with her husband and teenage daughter for two years. Black mold, a toilet falling through the floor and a broken gas heating system top a list of problems in their apartment, she said.

This month, city inspectors deemed their home a "dangerous building and public nuisance" and ordered Thoms and her family to leave by Feb. 11.

They're among dozens who must vacate their homes within 30 days after Medford, tired of decades of building code violations and crime on North Ivy Street, dropped the hammer on buildings 215, 229 and 235.

"Do Not Enter" signs have been posted on the doors and windows of the estimated 15 apartments that are housed in the three buildings, which are just a few blocks from McLoughlin Middle School and Jackson Elementary School.

Hugh Fechtler, inspector with the Medford Building and Safety Department, cited a litany of code and safety violations, including a failing foundation, inadequate sewage, inadequate heating, insect infestation, plumbing and electrical problems and construction without permits. Water from an upstairs apartment has leaked into a light fixture below, and none of the apartments have smoke detectors.

The city generally works with property owners to bring houses into compliance, Fechtler said, but the problems with 215, 229 and 235 N. Ivy St. are long-standing. When the violations began was not immediately available.

All three buildings are owned by Joseph Suste of Medford.

Suste has four options, Fechtler said: make repairs, vacate and board up the structures, demolish, or appeal the city's notification. Suste has not indicated which option he will pursue, Fechtler said.

Attempts by the Mail Tribune to reach Suste by deadline were unsuccessful.

Fechtler said Suste on Friday requested clarification on the repairs required and told the city he had evicted five tenants who were recently arrested by police.

Building and Safety Director Chris Reising said there have been numerous calls on these houses.

"All three of these have had nine code compliance issues in the last three years," he said.

Property manager Ron Bost, of B&B Property Management, said the repairs could be done while tenants remained in their homes.

"The code violations seem to be very minor and the owner can fix them up," he said. "We've evicted some of the tenants that are the problem."

Bost said the property owner, his attorney and the city are working to clear things up.

"The owner's trying to figure out why we cannot go in there and make repairs right now," said Bost. "The city's taking a pretty hard line on it."

Inspections of the three buildings were initiated by police officers who noticed dangerous living conditions during a recent series of arrests.

Medford police Sgt. Mark Boone said the department assigned a team of officers to patrol the area after crime reports on North Ivy Street increased last fall.

Boone said officers have seen "prolific drug trafficking" in the area, including meth possession and sales as well as a "smattering of heroin."

"It's of concern because you're in close proximity to schools," he said. Officers also noticed many dogs running loose in the vicinity.

Cecilia Rayburn has lived next door to the houses for 46 years, during which time she raised 10 children.

"When we moved here it was all old people who lived there," said Rayburn, 79. But one by one, her neighbors sold their houses, and the buildings were divided into multiple rental apartments. "Now, the police are over there all the time. You hear a lot of screaming and yelling."

She said the neighborhood grew rougher years ago and now she sees patrol cars at least three times a week parked in front of the houses.

"I tried for a year and a half to sell my house," she said, adding that prospective buyers liked her home but took one look at the buildings next door and moved on.

"I've been hoping and praying they'd tear them down," she said.

Medford Deputy Police Chief Tim George said this isn't the first time the city has focused on the neighborhood.

Prompted by neighbors' complaints, police in 2003 organized an undercover operation and made dozens of methamphetamine-related arrests on North Ivy Street.

But George remembers trouble in the neighborhood long before that.

"In 1977, I was rolling around in the parking lot fighting people in the 200 block of North Ivy," he said.

Suste faces a maximum fine of $150 per day for each code section violation if he takes no action. The city also could work on the property and bill Suste for the costs.

The houses were posted on different days, with evictions coming to fruition in early February. Any tenants remaining after the deadline can be arrested for criminal trespass, but Boone said police want to work with residents rather than arrest them.

"Our intent is to come over and embark on an educational campaign," he said.

Thoms said she believes a bulldozer is the only solution. Leaving the houses vacant would only invite transients to move in, she said. The houses are in such bad shape and have been a hangout for drug dealers for so long they're no longer salvageable, she said.

"I think they need to demolition it," she said.

But Reising said the houses aren't hopeless.

"It's just a matter of time and money and the will to do it," he said. "Anything's reinhabitable."

George recommends landlords get more involved and evict tenants who have been arrested multiple times. The city has been able to turn around similarly blighted neighborhoods, he said.

"This isn't something new," he said. "This is something we do."

Reach reporter Meg Landers at 776-4481 or e-mail mlanders@mailtribune.com.