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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Zombie homes’ in West Central neighborhood get new lease on life after receivership

The fate of five old Victorian houses in Spokane’s West Central Neighborhood has been decided after years of efforts to transform them into affordable housing units.

The houses were relocated to new lots in the neighborhood in 2016 to make room for a car wash at Maple Street and Gardner Avenue. But afterward they fell into disrepair and attracted squatters as their owner, the nonprofit Grove Community, failed to complete the necessary restoration work.

Last summer, the city filed a lawsuit to seize the “chronic nuisance” houses, then reached an agreement to place them into receivership to rid the properties of liens and get them sold to new owners.

Now that complicated process is over. A judge last month approved the sale of the last of the five houses, and some of them could be habitable by next spring, adding much-needed affordable housing to West Central as many tenants struggle with rising rents.

“It’ll be great to have these homes put back to service,” said Keith Kelley, a landlord and property manager who bought two of the houses. “We have a huge housing crisis going on right now, and the more inventory we can bring to the market, the better.”

Four of the houses will be renovated under their new owners. Two of those will be sold again as single-family homes, and two will be put up for rent. One house will be demolished and replaced with townhouses.

The local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity has purchased two of the houses, at 1819 and 1823 W. Sharpe Ave., for a combined price of $88,000.

CEO Michelle Girardot said the nonprofit plans to rehabilitate the houses and sell them to low-income families through its Derelict Housing Acquisition and Homeownership Program, which receives community development block grant funding through the city.

“We’ll put together a financing package for each family so that they pay no more than 30% of their income towards their monthly mortgage payments. And that includes their principal taxes, insurance, utilities and interest,” Girardot said. The goal, she said, “is to make sure that homeownership can be attainable and affordable.”

Habitat for Humanity can ensure the houses remain affordable for decades by leasing the land underneath them with certain restrictions on future sales, Girardot said.

The nonprofit relies on volunteers and partnerships with apprenticeship programs and hopes to begin restoring the houses in the coming months. The group already has replaced the roofs on both houses, which currently have gutted interiors and boards over all the doors and windows.

Girardot estimated each house will cost up to $180,000 to restore, including the value of volunteer labor.

“There’s a lot of history that we want to preserve in these homes, but it’s going to take a lot of work,” she said. “And in order for us to keep the mortgage affordable for these future Habitat homeowners, we’re going to rely heavily on donated labor and donated material and cash.”

Kelley, who specializes in affordable rental units in West Central, purchased the houses at 1723 W. Maxwell Ave. and 2130 W. Boone Ave. for a total of $100,412.

It was Kelley who came up with the idea to save the old houses when developers with Sarff Investments began laying plans for the Mega Wash Express car wash at Maple and Gardner in 2014.

Kelley stepped away when Deb Conklin, the pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, started the Grove Community and took on the task of moving the houses.

Then the project stalled as Conklin accused her contractor of “absconding” with hundreds of thousands of dollars – accusations that have not spurred a criminal investigation or a civil lawsuit.

Kelley watched with disappointment as the houses became increasingly dilapidated at their new locations.

“I set out from the beginning to save these homes from demolition and maintain the integrity of the neighborhood by preserving these older homes,” Kelley said. “So my plan is to fully restore them.”

The house on Maxwell will be divided into a duplex, while the house on Boone will be rented as a single-family home, he said.

Kelley said he hopes to have both homes “substantially completed” by next spring, though some repairs and exterior painting will need to wait until the warmer months. The house on Boone also needs a new roof, he said.

The fifth house, at 2006 W. Boone Ave., was sold to West Central resident Sean Fischer and his business partner, Jeff Hedspeth, for $52,000. Fischer has no relation to Tim Fischer, the attorney who oversaw the receivership process.

The house was never secured to a foundation at the Boone address. The structure still sits atop skids that were used to move it from the car wash location.

Sean Fischer said he and Hedspeth plan to carefully dismantle the house and return the skids to their owner, then clear the 0.13-acre site and construct a row of four townhouses, each with three bedrooms.

By building four units, they hope to qualify for the city’s multifamily property tax exemption, a development incentive that the City Council expanded to West Central and other neighborhoods in August.

Though Fischer runs a for-profit business and has no obligation to sell the townhouses below market rate, he said the prices will be low compared to other three-bedroom units in the neighborhood.

“We’re really excited to see what these community-oriented owners will do with these five blighted properties,” said assistant city attorney Matt Folsom.

Conklin, meanwhile, continues to fault the city for its handling of the situation and questioned why code enforcement officials “chose to pick on our particular houses.”

“The whole process is deeply troubling for a host of reasons,” she said Tuesday.

Conklin accused the city of lying in court to justify seizing the houses, and said she still plans to sue her former contractor once she has a full accounting of the work he completed.

“In a very short time we will know exactly what the damages are,” Conklin said.

“Deb’s heart was in the right place,” said City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who represents West Central.

But the houses generated numerous complaints that the city could not ignore, Stratton said.

“They were sitting and they were a safety hazard for the neighborhood,” she said. “I think it got to the point that we either fix these, or they are going to be knocked down and nobody wins.”

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