A century-old home at South 15th Street and Berry Avenue once drew hundreds of Bryants and Fischers to family reunions.
That was before October 2009, when oxygen tanks on the porch of the South Omaha home exploded. The owners survived, but the fire left so much damage that they had to move out.
Since then, the charred shell of the once-lively home has been empty, save for raccoons. It's become an eyesore for neighbors and a hazard for curious students from nearby Marrs Magnet Center, who often cut through the house to get home.
The house in the Mandan Park neighborhood is one of 465 that the city plans to raze. By comparison, Bellevue has about five such houses.
The abandoned homes cause safety and health problems for neighbors and bring down property values for the block.
“Any time a property does go dormant, it becomes a problem for the City of Omaha,” said City Councilman Garry Gernandt, who represents much of South Omaha. “And it becomes even more of a problem for people on that block.”
Because of the backlog, the City Council more than doubled the budget for home demolitions for next year.
The Bryant-Fischer home is one of 70 or so that will be demolished in 2013, up from 17 last year. Between city money and federal grants, that will cost taxpayers about $840,000.
The extra money is part of a larger push from Mayor Jim Suttle to address problems that he says contribute to crime. It dovetails with a movement in the Omaha Police Department toward partnerships with the community and proactive problem-solving, he said.
“I think it'll have a tremendous psychological effect for those who have to stare at (the vacant homes) every day,” Suttle said.
Even after the 70 or so houses are demolished, another 400 will remain, mostly in the eastern part of the city.
“We still have a long way to go, don't we?” Suttle said.
The City of Omaha's Planning Department oversees code enforcement in much, but not all, of the county, stretching as far west as Valley.
Houses that aren't occupied can pose problems for neighbors even if the house isn't so badly damaged as to be condemned.
Omaha Police Lt. Michael McGee often sees lawbreakers such as prostitutes or drug dealers move into the abandoned home.
Thieves often target unoccupied houses for copper wiring or other valuables, McGee said. The houses also attract graffiti and other property crime.
Sometimes a homeless person will move in for a few days, trying to stay warm. That can have disastrous results if the person tries to light a fire.
At least two homeless men died in fires in unoccupied properties this year.
John J. Lucas, 40, died last month during a fire at the abandoned Mac's Tavern at 16th and Izard Streets. In August, John C. Schmid, 58, was found after a fire in a garage of a house being renovated south of 28th Street and Woolworth Avenue. Firefighters have not released official causes of the fires.
The raccoons from the vacant Bryant-Fischer home often get into the garbage of Sergio Gonzalez, 43, who has lived next door for 12 years.
He also often sees middle-schoolers cut through the house on their way home because it's faster, ignoring the possibility that the home could collapse.
“That house is kind of a danger,” said Gonzalez, who complained to the city.
He's especially frustrated because there's little he can do — the backlog is so great that it's taken years for the city to move to demolish the house.
To understand why vacant houses near schools pose a bigger problem, consider Gonzalez's son, 16-year-old Julio.
Julio and a cousin at one point entered the house to explore, despite the possibility of a collapse. When asked to explain why he would do that, Julio said, “curiosity.” He conceded that the adventure probably wasn't worth the risk.
An abandoned home often holds neighbors hostage, deterring others from buying other houses in the neighborhood.
“Not only do they buy a home but they buy a neighborhood,” said David Matney, president of the Omaha Area Board of Realtors. “It's frustrating, but there's only so much you can do.”
Neighbors of a vacant home can sell, he said. But they'll probably receive less than they'd like or can afford.
Suttle subscribes to a theory that says that solving visible problems — vacant houses, graffiti and broken windows — deters crime.
In part, it's because those who know their neighbors and particularly those who are involved with neighborhood associations are more likely to notice something amiss and report crime, McGee said.
City officials hope such awareness could help prevent or solve crimes like the homicide of Damion Davis, whose body was found in August behind an abandoned house at 30th Street and Laurel Avenue.
A neighbor told The World-Herald that she saw two men chase Davis behind the house and then heard shots. (That house is not on the list to be demolished.)
“This is all tying together,” Suttle said. “As we've said over and over again, there's no one thing that's going to deter crime. It's a multiplicity of things.”
Suttle said it's hard for people to feel pride in their neighborhood when there's an ugly, unsafe shell of a house next door.
The body of Omaha businesswoman Karen Jenkins was found under an abandoned house near 40th Street and Ames Avenue in 2010. For two years, the house remained vacant, upsetting neighbors who felt they had no recourse.
Finally, Suttle said, the house was demolished this year. Neighbors told him that a feeling of relief washed over them, he said.
“It was just a buzz through the neighborhood,” Suttle said.
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