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Absentee Landlord Quickly Located Using Internet

This post is about an absentee landlord, how the city reacts to code violations, and a blogger stepping in to make change happen. I’d originally planned to post the property address and the name of the owner, but he responded to my letter, we’ve texted, talked on the phone, and emailed. Publicly embarrassing him would serve no purpose, at this point.

Twenty-four years ago tomorrow a prominent local family bought a property in the McKinley Heights neighborhood, they’ve been renting it all these years. The house is very attractive, and maintained. The carriage house, however, has been falling down for years, at least according to a neighbor. I viewed the carriage house from the alley, from the neighbor’s 2nd floor porch, and satellite images.

You can easily see daylight by pushing on the carriage door
You can easily see daylight by pushing on the carriage door, the entire structure is covered in vines

The flat roof has large holes, the floor to the 2nd floor no longer exists. When I emailed city officials to inquire about why this property was allowed to be in this condition, I’d been cited for much less. At the last minute in my email I added a sentence wondering if the owner’s last name is why ore if it was incompetence. I got called on that, and apologized. A couple of days later a reply comes from a staff member at the Building Division with a copy of the 2011 violation letter and a note saying the owner failed to contact them, failed to show up for housing court in 2011, and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. Wow, so a prominent last name doesn’t get them off the hook!

I got involved and within a week had the owner talking to the building department about fixing the carriage house. My secret? The internet!  The address of record for this property is the owner’s bank in suburban Ballwin, they pay the annual tax bill. However, it seems they discard all other correspondence sent by the city. I used the internet to find the owner’s home address, also in Ballwin. Before I’d heard back from the city about the violation letter and bench warrant, I’d mailed the owner a letter asking his intentions. I found his phone number online too, but chose to mail a letter knowing that would be less confrontational. He called me, we played phone tag a little before finally speaking.  He had no idea about the 2011 violation letter, the missed housing court date, or the bench warrant.

I got his email address so I could forward to him what the city emailed me, along with contact information for the Building Division, Cultural Resources, and a link to the McKinley Heights Historic District Design Standards. I immediately replied to the city officials I’d been emailing with to fill them in on the discussion along with how to reach him. The very next night the Neighborhood Stabilization Officer (NSO) told the neighborhood meeting the bench warrant had been served. With a bench warrant the police don’t come looking for you, but get pulled over for speeding you’ll be taken in when they see it in the system.

The bench warrant wasn’t served, as told to the neighborhood, I used the internet to track down the property owner. Most likely everyone at city hall followed their procedures, mailing letters to the recorded address. Waiting and mailing more letters. It’s very clear the address is in care of a bank. Many property owners have the tax bill sent to an address other than their home, sometimes it is the property itself. When the city fails to get a response from the first letter mailed to such an address they need to try something new rather than mailing a court notice to the same address.

How many other properties are in the same situation because city staff haven’t searched online for the property owner? The staff may not be incompetent, but the official procedures are if they don’t include taking a half an hour to do some searching online.

— Steve Patterson


Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

  1. guest says:

    Good work, Steve, but I have to believe this case is the exception rather than the rule. Properties are often held by LLCs where it might be hard to track down a live person. That arrangement must be changed so the city has a name and contact info for the owner. However, beyond that, there is a whole army of people working to track down and deal with negligent owners, starting with neighbors. What about the neighbor in this case? Did they have no idea about the identity of the owner?

  2. JZ71 says:

    Multiple thoughts. One, it’s the property owners’ responsibility to have good contact information with the city, not the city’s responsibility to “use the internet” to track them down. Two, property violations can be irritating, especially to neighbors, but the city also has a history of making big deals out of small issues (peeling paint) while doing little over big ones (failing roofs, unsecured vacant structures). I’m not sure that aggressive enforcement (using the internet to track down owners) on every “violation” is the best answer. Three, most people don’t spend good money to buy investment property, just to watch it decay. I’d like to know why the owners, here, chose to maintain the main structure while letting the accessory structure decay. When we bought our rental property, it had a dilapidated garage. The first thing we did was pay to have it demolished. It was beyond saving and we didn’t want the liability. Four, I find an interesting double standard at play here, where you’re willing to not publicly embarrass him because/while he’s talking to you, but you’re more than willing to embarrass other property owners who don’t “play ball” according to your rules. Finally, a “prominent name” does not always equal either great wealth or competence in any field. Property maintenance requires cash, and if you want to see better property maintenance, anywhere, you better hope that property values are increasing, not falling. When the recession hit, even some properties in good neighborhoods in cities doing much better than St. Louis saw deferred maintenance and abandonment. We have decaying properties because people, here, have little hope of ever recovering their investment – why should they throw good money after bad? The city can only do so much, punitively, to “encourage” maintenance. The ultimate outcome, in many cases, is the city gets title to the property, and the city is in no better position to maintain a property than the previous, private owners! It’s fundamentally a market issue, not an enforcement issue – a city that loses 2/3 of its population simply does not need every structure that was built to serve its peak population . . .

    • guest says:

      Agree with your general observations, JZ, but the point of Steve’s post is about the city’s rather ineffective response in the whole area of dealing with nuisances. And that’s ironic when you hear so often how St. Louis government is, for the most part, wait for it…”complaint driven”. Isn’t that great? That’s pretty much all alderman do – deal with constituent complaints about things. Why anyone would want to be an alderman is beyond me.

      • JZ71 says:

        My point was that the city’s procedure does not seem to be fundamentally flawed in this case – the property owner was properly notified, by mail. The breakdown occurred on the owner’s end, where the bank / address of record was apparently “discard[ing] all other correspondence sent by the city.” You can’t fix stupid and you can’t expect the city to figure out how to get around every legal firewall!

        As for the complaint driven part of the equation, it’s an interesting dilemma. The city is not structured as a suburban subdivision, with a voluntary home owners’ association, where every owner agrees to abide by the aesthetic and property maintenance established by the developer. The city is structured to “just” protect the public’s health, safety and welfare. While poor or no maintenance will eventually result in structural failure, much of the city’s efforts seem aimed at purely cosmetic concerns (weeds, peeling paint) that are likely symptoms, but are not, in themselves, true safety hazards. What you (and others) view as “nuisance” properties may not fit the legal definition of a “nuisance” (usually one where criminal activity is occurring, not one that is poorly maintained).

        Yes, most government action is, and should be, complaint driven. In my experience, most government agents can not be “offended” in their official roles. A police officer can’t be driving down the street, randomly stopping people or knocking on doors, they need probable cause or an actual complaint before they contact a private citizen. I’ve dealt with issues like this for years, and I’m pretty familiar with what constitutes a violation of some regulation or ordinance. I could go through pretty much any property and find multiple “violations” (many of them minor), and I’m sure city officials could do an even better job than I could. I just don’t think that we want to get down to that level, where we live in a police state, where our every action or inaction is subject to intense governmental scrutiny . . . .


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