Images of neglected home prod Fort Worth officials into action

Jessie Washington, 87, wearing a shirt from her grandson that says "I love Grandma," stands in her manicured front yard next to her "keep off the grass" sign, hands on hips, looking angry. She has a message for the city of Fort Worth.

"Tell 'em I don't like them."

For more than a half a century, she has lived in her Lake Como neighborhood home. The last seven years, since the house next door became empty, have been terrible, she said.

"I wake up mad when I look over here."

The house is covered front and back, ground to rooftop, with overgrown vegetation. A side fence has collapsed. Two trash bins sit in the alley, filled to the brim with dirty water and decrepit junk. Barrels lie on their sides in the back yard, near a half-built wooden shed that is falling apart.

"If this place ever catches fire, there's nothing to do but run. They couldn't put it out even if the firetruck was parked outside."

She has complained to city officials, by phone and in person, on and off for years, she says. "Anytime I see them anywhere, I stop and tell them."

Finally, fed up and plum out of ideas, she wrote to The Watchdog. I visited this week and made a video of her giving me a tour and begging for help. I put the video on YouTube and sent the Web link to Code Compliance Director Brandon Bennett. I also sent him photos of the disgusting trash bins, too.

Bennett jumped on the problem. The video and photos, he told me, were the evidence he needs to get a warrant giving his staff permission to march onto the property and take action. Code officers aren't allowed to enter private property without owner permission, but this owner isn't around.

City-hired mowers are allowed to enter a property every so often, and in this case, they do. But the listed owner doesn't pay the bills.

"This is one of the ones that are falling through the cracks," Bennett told me. "We have too many of these. They are killing us."

Substandard housing is a threat to most large U.S. cities. As the economy suffers, it gets worse.

"These patterns develop," Bennett said. "It just brings down the rest of the neighborhood. It starts with one house, and pretty soon it's the whole block."

With his department's budget cut 20 percent, he said, "We have to prioritize calls for service."

Used to be the city ordered mowers to cut neglected grass and weeds when they reached 12 inches. Now it's 18 inches. Used to be the city hired mowers every 21 days. Now it's 45.

"We just don't have the funding to pay for them," he said.

I tried to contact the listed owner of the house but couldn't find her.

Nine liens on the property for mowing and administrative fees total $2,300, city records show.

The listed owner has also fallen behind on city property taxes for three years, totaling $2,500.

Eight resident complaints for tall grass and high weeds have been listed against the property since 2006. Before that, there were complaints for trash, debris, storage and junked vehicles.

It's an eyesore every way you look. But there's hope for Washington. This week, the city launched what it calls its "nuisance abatement process" -- legal talk for "get rid of the junk."

The debris, barrels, fence, a dead tree near a power line and the wretched bins should all be removed by July 20, the city says.

There's also hope for others in the same situation.

A state law that went into effect Jan. 1 (House Bill 3065) allows counties with a population greater than 1.5 million to adopt ordinances requiring registration of vacant buildings. That process allows a city to take drastic action on abandoned properties, too.

But there is a kink. Even though Fort Worth officials began working on such an ordinance, the process was halted temporarily because Tarrant County didn't have enough residents to qualify.

New census numbers expected to become official in April will show that Tarrant County's population has grown.

What does this mean? A new city ordinance will give officials greater control to stop the pattern of block erosion.

Jessie Washington has a wait-and-see attitude.

"I know they let me down," she said. "They ignored me. That's what they did."

No longer.

DAVE LIEBER, 817-685-3830