The Worst House in the Neighborhood: A WDBJ7 Special Report

ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) Every day inspectors in the city of Roanoke are out looking at homes. They're trying to identify buildings that aren't being maintained, and ones that might be in danger of falling down. When they find problems, they aren't always able to take immediate action.

The view from Joy Gambon’s porch is why she loves her home.

“It's great – spectacular,” she said.

While she loves the view looking out -- it's the house down the street she's not too fond of.

Gambon said, “There's a lot of houses in this area that have suffered some really bad damage.”

There is a home on the corner of 12th and Montrose has a rap sheet of its own. Data from the fire marshal shows the empty home caught fire four times since November 2016. Once, injuring a firefighter who fell through the floor.

“I don't know why it's still there,” said Gambon.

That is a question for Chris Chittum, the city's planning director.

Chris Chittum, Roanoke City Planning Director, said, “That process in and of itself is quite unwieldy and lengthy.”

Chittum says sometimes, their only option is to serve people with a summons to show up in court.

“It does usually result in compelling the owner to do what they need to do,” said Chittum.

Getting them in court is easier said than done, though. Chittum says any time someone outside the city owns property that needs to be fixed up, they can have problems serving them with paperwork.
In 2017, the city got 221 summons.
17% had not been delivered.

Chittum said, “We're at the mercy of another agency to serve that summons.”

Which means a process that should take a couple months is taking a couple years.

“It just sits until we have to go through the lengthy demolition process,” said Chittum.

That's where people like Donald Gillespie come in.

Donald Gillespie, Code Enforcement Coordinator, said, “Chris Chittum calls me a special agent.”

He works on the most difficult cases, and with inspectors who spend their days patrolling the city's 11 zones. Inspectors keep an eye out for problem properties, while relying on help from everyone.

“You can't be everywhere at the same time,” said Gillespie.

When it comes time to tear down buildings, if the owners don't come forward, the city picks up the bill. Chittum says that costs taxpayers about 10 grand each time.

“We hope to get that back someday by putting the lien on the property, but we may or may not get that back,” said Chittum.

Gambon said, “You know, what concerns me the most is the safety.”

It can be a gamble, but neighbors believe it's one that pays off.