A citizens group says slumlords are using legal loopholes to keep from cleaning up their properties. Now the city is looking to successes in Phoenix for ways to shut the slumlords down. 

Property Rights

Statistics speak for themselves and if it's happening here, it's happening elsewhere," says Meg Lawrence of the Ginter Park Residents Association.

The statistics in question are those gathered from a 3rd Precinct police report for all calls for service made to police from April 1 to July 17, 2000 for the 3900 block of Chamberlayne Avenue.

In 108 days, 199 calls were placed from that single block. Complaints to police included everything from unnecessary noise to assault to what the police call "promiscuous" shootings. Alarming, too, is that 50 of those calls have come from the Redwood apartment building at 3916 Chamberlayne Avenue.

Neighbors say they feel defenseless against the high amount of crime that stems from that one property. Police have made arrests, city code enforcement has cited violations, and in 1998 the Commonwealth Attorney's Office prosecuted the Redwood case - unsuccessfully — under Operation Squalor, the city initiative that allows negligent landlords to be sued by neighborhoods like Ginter Park over property considered to be a public nuisance. But Bellevue resident John Butcher says Operation Squalor measures weren't enough to clean up the drugs and prostitution he says still overwhelm the Redwood.

Still, the 24-unit, low-income apartment building continues to be owned and managed by Richmond accountant Frank Woelfl. "I don't see this as my neighborhood versus Frank Woelfl," says Lawrence, of the civic association. "This is the city's problem."

And now city residents, not all from North Side, are voicing what they feel may be the best possible way to clean up the Redwood and other similar properties throughout the city. Calling themselves Team Zero Tolerance, the 10-member, multi-neighborhood group would like Richmond to adopt some of the ideas of Phoenix, which has passed some of the toughest anti-slumlord legislation in the country.

Recently returned from the Neighborhood USA conference in Phoenix, Team ZT members Zoe Ann Green of the Museum District and North Side residents John Butcher and Meg Lawrence are ready to put that city's slum landlord program to work here. Already, the team has worked to help City Council pass a resolution last month recognizing the newly drafted reciprocity agreement between the city and its citizenry. Called the city and citizen's Bill of Rights, it puts on paper the responsibility each has to the other.

"In one word, it's all about enforcement," says Green. But, she says, "We're going to shamelessly steal [Phoenix's] ideas, which they encourage us to do." It's likely there might even be educational training sessions for landlords. "They'll be paid back tenfold," Green says of the landlords, who will end up saving money in the long run by insisting on more reliable tenants.

So far, $1 million has been set aside in Phoenix to strengthen enforcement of zoning and property codes. Phoenix's Slumlord Task Force - made up of city officials, lawmakers, police and neighborhood groups - has attacked landlords who previously had been able to slip through loopholes to skip prosecution. Under new laws, convicted slumlords can be responsible for the criminal deeds done on their property. The task force also has been able to win the support of Arizona realty associations. Like Virginia, Arizona is known as a hard-line property-rights state.

States including Virginia, Louisiana and New York have taken notice and are trying to adopt similar measures.

But Woelfl says Operation Squalor cleared his name when the case was dismissed and that complaining neighbors should leave him alone. "I've had several people try to tell me how to run my business, and I don't know why I have to hear it," says Woelfl. "I've thought seriously about suing people."

Woelfl says the property has been nothing but trouble since he bought it six years ago. The $310 a month he receives from each of the 24 tenants' rent goes into a tax shelter and, he says, it doesn't turn a profit. He's frustrated by North Side residents he says forced him into court at a $5,000 cost to defend what he says is a lawfully run apartment building.

"The problem is I've got fleas and flies," says Woelfl indicating both his tenants and North Side neighbors. "What we really have here is a police problem."

Bellevue resident John Butcher disagrees. He says "the landlord is key" to correcting problems at properties like the Redwood, which he contends is both a nuisance and a danger. "But putting [Woelfl] in jail isn't the answer," warns Butcher. "Reforming him is."

Butcher argues that what the city really needs is a specific person in its government whose sole job it is to identify problem landlords and get their attention. Already Deputy City Manager Connie Bawcum is working to come up with a city administrative task force to deal with slum landlords. But so far, not much has gotten off the ground. It's the hope of Butcher and Team ZT that a Slumlord Abatement Division like the one created in Phoenix could put a drastic dent in the number of landlords who fail to keep up their properties. Butcher also would like to see the city make it easier for citizens to bring a civil, rather than criminal, case against slum landlords. But ultimately, his concerns boil down to just one thing: "Public safety is the first job of the city, and we are not doing well at that

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