West Juneau residents worry about health, safety issues from condemned home

Elevated view looking over the street-level garage at the condemned home at 3101 Nowell Avenue in West Juneau. Photo courtesy of Lin Davis.

Many of the houses along West Juneau’s Nowell Avenue are well-maintained, two-story homes with manicured and pleasant yards. Sitting about a hundred feet above sea level, they offer a view of downtown Juneau across Gastineau Channel. But residents say one particular home has been a blight in their neighborhood for years.

Valerie Mertz and her family live across the street and about two doors down from the condemned house. She says they’ve been extremely patient, but she believes it’s long since become a health and safety hazard.

“We have a bear now that is pretty much a permanent resident in our neighborhood,” said Mertz. She worries about the children and senior citzens who may not feel safe in their own yards.

Lin Davis lives next door to the structure at 3101 Nowell Avenue. For 16 years, she’s had no choice but to watch over her fence as the neighboring house deteriorates.

“It’s been an experience of an expanding nightmare with health and safety issues really right from the beginning,” said Davis.

Mertz, Davis’ partner, and other area neighbors went before the Assembly last week frustrated by what they feel is not enough attention and action by the CBJ. They’re worried that it’s going to be left unresolved for yet another year. They called on Assemblymembers to view the property for themselves.

City Manager Kim Kiefer says they’re trying to get all the litter and junk cleaned-up that exceeds the 200-square foot maximum in city code.

“There is a definition specifically for what’s junk and what’s not, and trying to define what that is and what needs to be moved,” said Kiefer.

They’re also waiting for another opinion, a second engineer’s report, on the the house’s structural integrity.

“To find out what condition it is in, because we don’t know that,” said Kiefer.

Southeast corner of condemned home at 3101 Nowell Avenue. Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO News

The property is owned by 71-year old Ronald W. Hohman of Juneau. Twelve years ago, he was charged for having an unsafe residence. He was convicted of two misdemeanors, received a one-year suspended imposition of sentence, fined $3,000, and ordered to do 150 hours of community work service.

More recently, the house has deteriorated so much that police officers closed it to human occupancy in October and the CBJ Community Development Department condemned it in February.

Because of nearly $14,000 in unpaid water and sewer bills, sewer service was shut off. The CBJ charged Hohman with violating requirements for a public sewer and living in a building considered a public nuisance. Utility crews, however, severed an outflow line that served both Hohman and a neighbor with sewage backing up inside both properties. The criminal case was dropped.

City attorneys said they negotiated partial payment of utility bills and improvements bringing the building back up to code for human occupancy. Hohman is not allowed to stay at the house overnight, though he can make repairs during the day.

But it’s unclear whether any clean-up or repairs could save the structure and alleviate neighbor’s concerns.

“It looks like a third-world country back here in terms of the squalor and the debris,” said Davis who believes that it’s gotten worse over the last sixteen years.

Davis escorts a reporter through the brush and woods in a friend’s backyard that allows a view across the property line to Hohman’s house. She points to what appears to be unfinished and abandoned construction. Open doors and windows allow easy entry by bears, birds, and rodents, and personal belongings and debris inside are exposed to the elements. Tarps appear to cover all the roof surfaces. There are at least eight unused water heaters lined up against the side of the structure. Building materials are piled up throughout the yard.

Lin Davis’ fence along the side of her property. Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO News

Davis lives on the other side of 3101 Nowell. In her backyard, she says she found a paper towel with excrement that was either thrown over the fence by a former Hohman tenant or dropped by an animal. Her fence is braced with boards to keep it from collapsing under the weight of items placed against it on the other side. The exterior wood of Hohman’s house is visibly rotting or in disrepair, a corner of the structure appears to be settling, and the CBJ Building Official believes collapse is imminent.

“And you can see how steamy everything is, the windows,” said Davis pointing to condensation on a window near the front part of the house. “Even with an open door, everything is wet in there.”

Neighborhood residents have documented instances of what they believe were Hohman’s tenants leaving food stored outside in coolers and food debris left in the interior of the house.

A strong musty, moldy smell drifts over from the condemned home. There’s also the potential fire danger of a structure filled with clutter.

Capital City Fire and Rescue Chief Rich Etheridge says they won’t put lives at risk for a condemned building. Firefighters may enter the structure to attack an emerging fire or rescue a person. But if it’s a well-involved blaze, then priority will be protecting the property of neighbors.

Valerie Mertz says Hohman is a nice man. She is careful to emphasize that “it’s not an attack on him” and they don’t wish him any ill will. But she says they were assured by the city that the property would finally be cleaned up this year.

“We take pride in our homes and we pay our bills, and we expect our neighbors to do the same,” said Mertz. “I thought that was the minumum standard set by the city as well.”

Ronald Hohman declined to do a recorded interview with KTOO. But, in a long conversation off tape, he suggested that a divorce, a job out of state, and previous tenants who did not take out the garbage or pay utility bills all contributed to the property’s decline and $220,0000 of damage.

He admits he hasn’t done as much as he should. But he says he’s doing the best he can and making progress on cleaning up the front of the house even while working as tour driver full-time. He says he even had friends come over and help out recently.

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