Doing good in the hood
Ryker Benzley has taken on the unsavory job of cleaning a rat-infested house on Columbus Avenue, stuffing garbage bags filled with contaminated insulation.
"It was a rat's nest," he says. "All the insulation in the attic had to be taken out because the rats had taken over."
The 25-year-old is cleaning up the former drug house for his dad, who is renovating after recently buying it.
Down the street, another house that was in just as bad of shape also was cleaned up and a family has moved in.
All across the city, drug houses once infected with rats, trash, needles and crime are being restored.
In 2017, the city of Medford took on a host of problem properties that had drawn frequent visits by police and prompted neighbors to install cameras and fences for their own security.
The city created a Neighborhood Livability Partnership and identified 53 houses with a bad history. Of those, 36 have been improved.
Medford police Cpl. Tom Venables, who is in charge of code enforcement, says some of the properties have been a nuisance since he started on the force 14 years ago.
"These houses are the center of a tornado," he says. "The neighbors are just fed up."
When the criminal element moves in, it starts a cycle of drug dealing, trash accumulation and assaults.
Venables says he’s now devoting up to 30 percent of his time keeping the pressure on landlords, many of whom live out of state, as well as the occupants of the blighted houses to clean up their act.
The constant pressure has paid off.
Some of the occupants have moved away and are now getting mental health or drug treatment. Owners of many of the houses have either sold them or have evicted the unruly tenants.
“All of this chaos around these houses starts to dissipate,” Venables says.
Venables attributes the success of the program to a coordinated effort among many Jackson County agencies.
The Livability Partnership, based on a model developed by Clackamas County, hasn’t resulted in any significant cost increases for the city, he says.
The partnership has monthly meetings and is made up of Medford police, the city’s legal team, Building and Safety, Planning, Addictions Recovery Center, Jackson County Mental Health, Jackson County District Attorney’s Office and Jackson County Parole and Probation.
The team also works with neighbors, many of whom are fearful or tormented by the occupants of the blighted properties.
“This is literally getting together and talking to people,” Venables says. “The goal is to seek a positive outlook, but sometimes we have to be the hammer.”
In some cases, the houses are in such bad shape that the occupants need to be evicted, and the city sometimes has to bring in a Dumpster to haul away the trash. Citations are frequently issued to the occupants, and sometimes they are jailed.
Venables says the typical beat officer doesn’t have the time to devote the long-term pressures needed to resolve these problems.
“I’m not part of a patrol anymore once I got in charge of these zombie properties,” he says.
One success story is a property near Spring Street and Modoc Avenue in east Medford.
“It was the epicenter of a lot of crime in the area,” Venables says. “There was lots of drug use, stolen cars and foot traffic all through the night.”
Police were called out almost daily, and one of the neighbors, Bob Mills, was extremely fed up.
“I said, ‘A gallon of gas and a match would fix it right now,’” says the 72-year-old, standing outside his well-kept house that he’s lived in for 30 years. “You would be afraid to put the kids out here.”
Mills pointed to various homeowners who installed security cameras and were on high alert because of the drug house.
Venables and Mills are practically old friends now, joking about the bad old days.
“They came over and sliced my two rear tires that had the aggressive tread,” Mills remembers.
When he had a heated argument with someone at the drug house, Mills’ frustration came to a boil as he jokingly threatened one of the guys. “I never met anyone who could outrun a shotgun,” he told him. “He worried that I was going to do that. ‘Well you best get something going here,’ I told him.”
Since Venables and his team began the constant pressure, the tenant moved to another state to get mental-health treatment, and the owner began cleaning up the place, which is now rented to tenants who are better behaved. The change removed the fear that gripped Mills’ street.
“It kind of civilized the neighborhood,” he says.
While Venables laughed a bit when Mills recounted his story about the shotgun threat, the officer says it shows how disruptive one drug house can be.
“People are so frustrated with the situation that that’s what they’re thinking,” he says.
Getting rid of bad tenants or boarding up a blighted house are steps in a long process to turn a drug house into a place where families can feel safe.
Just off West Main Street in west Medford, a former drug house has been boarded up, though there is plenty of trash around it.
“This is our priority problem property,” Venables says. Signs around the building warn, “Do Not Enter. Unsafe Building.”
Venables says the goal is not to board up a house, but to either fix it up or tear it down. Ideally, the property would be rehabilitated so a family could live there and it would no longer be an eyesore for the neighborhood.
Venables drives his patrol car out to a property on Columbus Avenue, where police previously had to confront people who had methamphetamine and illegal guns.
“It’s dangerous for police and dangerous for the community,” he says. “It was a nightmare.”
One of the properties had a “Do Not Enter” sign on it six months ago.
“The woman who owned it before ended up selling it, and the new owner fixed it up,” Venables says. “Now a family is living in it, and they’re taking care of it.”
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