After a year, some Raleigh homes still suffer from tornadoes

City moves to tear down residences in greater peril a year after tornadoes

mlocke@newsobserver.comApril 15, 2012 

— Arvella Windham spends much of her days on her front porch in East Raleigh, rocking to ease the anxiety that rushes over her when she looks across the street at the enormous oak tree that last April’s tornadoes pushed down on her neighbor’s house.

The 100-year-old oak lingered long after other neighbors rushed to pick up trash and debris and tear down the homes damaged beyond repair. But the tiny white bungalow at 103 Pettigrew Street seemed somehow forgotten.

City inspectors hunted for a property owner to take charge, and while they investigated, the oak’s mighty limbs cracked and decayed. Over the winter, homeless men started to squat in the front room, taking cover under the sagging roof. An occasional passerby would stop and urinate. Rats set up a breeding ground. Windham fretted. “It makes it hard for me to forget the tornadoes, and my nerves is already so fragile from that,” she said.

City officials finally lost patience and have ordered the home to be demolished. It’s one of several deemed unsafe by inspectors and seemingly abandoned by owners responsible for making repairs. A crew paid by the city will tear down the home in the next few weeks.

Last April’s storms arrived at a most inconvenient moment for dozens of homes already entangled with powerful forces. Sickness, death, destitution and foreclosure already put some homes into peril; the tornadoes brought those pressures to a crisis level.

Now, as heirs try to sort through estates and banks try to finalize foreclosure on these properties, the city is stepping in to tackle cleanup. When a building is so badly damaged it’s considered dangerous to the public, city officials try to compel a homeowner to take care of it with the threat of demolition. Sometimes, no amount of coaxing can force compliance, so city council members enable inspectors to hire crews to tear it down.

The city already demolished two mobile homes in Stony Brook Mobile Home Park, and another is slated to be torn down. In the coming weeks, the Pettigrew property and another on Brighton Road near Enloe High School will meet a wrecking ball.

Two more are in the queue, with inspectors asking permission next month to tear them down. The city has compelled dozens more, with threat of demolition, to make repairs or face demolition. Officials are still closely monitoring progress at a dozen or so others. So far, the city has spent $30,000 on demolition, and officials will try to recoup those costs by placing liens on the property.

“It’s amazing we are still working with some of these properties,” said Ashley Glover, Raleigh Housing Inspection Administrator. “The economic downturn had really made a lot of this tricky.”

Death and disaster

Last April, as the storm wrecked 103 Pettigrew, Irene Lucas, 88, was three miles away, frail and confused in Sunnybrook HealthCare and Rehab, a nursing home. The property had been left to her by her grandmother decades before, and she had let the insurance lapse.

And while her relatives told her that the storm had all but ruined the home she managed as a rental property, she didn’t have the capacity or strength to tackle cleanup. Neither did her grown sons; one was bedridden by a stroke, and the other is blind.

Lucas died in February. When her granddaughter, Taneia Fowler, came down from Maryland for her funeral and saw the giant tree laid across her grandmother’s property, she didn’t know where to begin.

“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” Fowler said. “When my grandmother got sick, everything just sort of slipped away.”

Sunnybrook, the nursing facility where Lucas stayed, has laid claim to the value of the home to recoup the outstanding bill for Lucas’ stay. When the city tears down the home, it will put a lien on the property for the cost of demolition. Fowler hopes to sell the land, pay off the lien, settle the nursing home bill and leverage whatever else her grandmother owned to pay off other bills. “It’s just so much,” Fowler said, “and I wish I had known.”

A relative’s angst

Two miles away, many of the homes along North King Charles Road have gotten a facelift in the last year. The area was among the hardest hit during the tornadoes. Now, young twiggy trees have been planted where stately oaks once stood. Some of the 50-year-old modest brick ranches have been replaced with sleek new bungalows.

But at 1501 North King Charles, nothing has been touched. A blue tarp stretches across gaping holes in the roof where trees crashed. Loose shingles blow in the wind.

The city has exhausted its efforts to find someone willing to tackle the repairs needed to make the house safe again. Next month, Glover, the chief inspector, will ask city council to approve demolition.

Just a few years ago, Carol Powell and her teenage daughter made a happy home there. But in 2009, Powell came down with a degenerative disease that quickly rendered her an invalid, said her sister, Ivy McNeil. Powell died in May 2009, and her daughter went to live with relatives out of town.

Powell had no will. She owed nearly $100,000 to Wachovia, now Wells Fargo, for the home. When her payments stopped and no one took charge, the bank started the tedious march toward foreclosure.

In January 2011, three months before the storm, Wells Fargo was in the process of foreclosing on the property. Once the city demolishes the home and the foreclosure is complete, the bank will either sell the land or donate it to the city, said Josh Dunn, a spokesman for the company.

McNeil, who lives in Apex, had become her sister’s caretaker in her final months and had power of attorney over her medical issues. But McNeil never took charge of her sister’s financial affairs or the unfinished business of her estate.

“It was all I could do to pay for my own place,” she said.

Her sister’s neighbor called after the storm to tell her of the damage to the house. McNeil felt overwhelmed by the news. She couldn’t even muster the willpower to drive out to her sister’s old home.

“I can’t stand to go over there anyway because I feel like I should be able to see my sister when I drive up,” McNeil said. “Too many memories over there.”

She figured the bank would have already taken control of the property. That’s what she told city inspectors who called to ask about repairs to the property after the storm.

“I’m just gonna have to let it roll as it rolls,” McNeil said. “It’s the bank’s problem now.”

Storm of foreclosure

Further down North King Charles, Wells Fargo is hovering over another property the city has been monitoring since the storm.

The story of 1019 Brighton Road mimics the climb and crash of America’s housing market. A young couple, Nicole Sansoni and Barre Gambling, bought the two-story brick home for $100,000 in 2005, according to property records, taking out loans for the full amount. According to records, the couple took out a $34,000 home equity line with Citibank to make repairs.

Darren Spivey, whose mother lives across the street, remembers seeing Sansoni and Gambling fixing up the home and was glad to see a young couple move onto the block.

In 2007, the couple paid off their first loan by taking out an adjustable mortgage with Wells Fargo, meaning that their interest rate could spike in the future.

Spivey said the couple split a few years after their arrival on Brighton. Sansoni moved away, and Gambling didn’t want to keep up the home on his own.

“He told me that he wasn’t going to put one more cent into it,” Spivey said. A parade of renters followed, Spivey said. For a few months, a for sale sign was staked in front of the house.

The banks started pressing for payments in recent years, and in December 2010, four months before two trees crashed down on the home’s roof, the bank initiated foreclosure. The process wasn’t quite complete when the storm hit – and still isn’t – so Sansoni and Gambling still technically own the land. The foreclosure process continues.

The city couldn’t get in touch with Sansoni or Gambling, and they couldn’t be reached for comment for this report. Within weeks, a contractor hired by the city will tear down the home.

Spivey shook his head as he stood in mother’s yard last week and stared at the abandoned home. He’s seen drifters come through in the last year and try to pluck whatever building materials they could.

He doesn’t like his mother living beside such a distressed property and the trouble it may bring. Mostly, though, he can’t understand how a home can be forgotten.

“How can you just walk away from something you own?” Spivey said.

Staff writer David Bracken and news researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this report.

Locke: 919-829-8927

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