Quality-of-life issue for entire community

Evansville Courier & Press  

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By Arek Sarkissian II

EVANSVILLE — School buses full of kids lumbered down Waggoner Avenue Thursday afternoon as William Redfairn watched from the side of his neatly kept yard.

Disembarking youngsters shrieked, squealed and screamed as they darted down the street, which Redfairn said he did not mind.

It is the house next door that disturbs him.

In April, the vacant home was the site of a methamphetamine one-pot lab explosion. Now, 10 months later, a large blue tarp covers the roof, and junk is strewed about the front yard. On the front door, a peeling and faded orange sign labels the house unfit for occupancy.

“There must have been up to five others reported all in this neighborhood,” Redfairn said. “It’s a shame you’ve got to live next door to something like that. It’s frustrating.”

Residents and landlords across Evansville share Redfairn’s frustration. The Vanderburgh County Health Department has condemned at least 160 properties due to meth production since the one-pot method of meth production was introduced to Evansville in early 2010.

Most of the condemned properties were rental units situated in neighborhoods already struggling to keep property values stable.

A map of housing values prepared by the city Department of Metropolitan Development reveals most of the condemned properties were in areas where home values were less than $50,000.Evansville’s battle with meth has made it harder for a city fighting to survive, said Monte Fetter, head of the local Property Owners and Managers Association.

“That’s why this really has become a quality-of-life issue for the entire community,” Fetter said.

Fetter said if the problem worsens, landlords will be forced to pass the burden of prevention on to the prospective tenant, which includes paying for background checks and tougher lease conditions.

“Are we going to have a leper colony of low-quality tenants? Do we need to have a system where our tenants need to be licensed?” Fetter said. “We don’t know.”

Most property owners affected by meth lab discoveries opted to have their property cleaned to rigorous and expensive state-enforced standards. Those costs make it harder for landlords to stay in business, Fetter said.

“It’s getting tougher every day,” Fetter said. “I know of some landlords who are wondering if it’s worth it.”

Landlords already face a stock of aging rental housing that requires more maintenance. Meanwhile, the cost to lease property in the city remains low, Fetter said.

“So the prospect of cleaning up a meth house could just set a landlord over the edge,” Fetter said. “You’ve already got all that overhead, and then when something like a meth house comes along, it can be devastating in a lot of ways. In some cases, we’ve seen homes abandoned, and they fall off the tax rolls and then the whole community suffers.”

A check of affected addresses with the Vanderburgh County Assessor’s Office shows that roughly 20 percent of those properties have overdue taxes.

Fetter said the discovery of a lab also is a black eye for neighborhoods. Addresses where the labs were found are easily searchable on the Internet or by word-of-mouth.

Another unknown is the number of one-pot labs never reported to police. These discoveries are sometimes left to future tenants. Donetta Held, of Crisis Cleaning, said some of her clients have moved into homes and became suspicious of meth lab production. Held recalled one couple who bought a home and then found a red residue inside.

“We tested it for them, and it turns out it was from a meth lab,” she said. “And this was a high dollar home, but people were still using it to cook meth.”

Crisis Cleaning is one of at least three companies that test and decontaminate homes in Vanderburgh County. Held said one difference in homes where one-pot labs were found is that the toxic residue is far more volatile. On several occasions, the amount has been at least 100 times more than the state’s acceptable standard.

“It’s much more highly toxic and dangerous than the standard way they used to cook,” she said, adding those levels come from samples taken from walls, counters, cabinets and floors. “That residue, a lot of it will penetrate the structure people are living around.”

Held said wood was the hardest to clean, and items like older cabinets normally are replaced.

“If it’s something older or has a bad finish on it, a lot of times we can’t decontaminate them and they have to be torn out,” she said. “I would say 50 to 60 percent of the homes we’ve done lead to that.”

So far, insurance companies have paid to clean most rental properties, but cases where the homeowner was responsible have not been so lucky.

“That’s a criminal act, which calls for exclusion with the insurance companies,” she said.

Vanderburgh County Health Department Supervisor Dwayne Caldwell said one of his responsibilities is to make sure reported meth labs are decontaminated to meet state law. Even a trace of residue left on a surface inside a home could be toxic to a child.

“A child in that environment will absorb it through the skin, or they may ingest it or inhale it,” Caldwell said. “That has a negative effect on the body.”

One-pot lab reports began surfacing at the beginning of 2010 and have been taken from all areas of the county. But the largest number have been found inside homes within the central portion of the city from Riverside Drive to Diamond Avenue. That area also includes the city’s largest number of rental properties.

“Surprisingly enough, it’s scattered all over,” he said. “But if you see how it’s along that central stretch of the city; that correlates to where all our rental properties are.”

Caldwell said state code only allows a property owner to decontaminate, renovate or demolish an affected property. Only a handful of properties were demolished, he said.

State law requires that a property be tested before its occupied again, which costs about $800. Subsequent cleaning by a licensed crew could cost about $8,000 and could take about two weeks. A property owner could do it alone, but will face continuous tests by trained professionals.

“It may save the property owner money but it takes a lot longer,” Caldwell said. “So you have to weigh out if it’s worth it.” Caldwell said one advantage meth cooks see in the one-pot method its portability, which allows them to hide in urban areas. “The problem is, the people making this stuff aren’t the calmest of people, so you don’t think they’ll rationally handle a bottle that’s expanding from all the gas,” he said. “They’re like little bombs.”

As of the New Year, the state implemented a mandatory computer monitoring of pseudoephedrine that restricted its sales to individuals every week. State police officials said meth producers who have found refuge inside homes already found a way around the system. Before Jan. 1, meth cooks would pay a few people to buy pseudoephedrine for them, which is known on the street as “smurfing.” Since the new system was deployed, field reports have shown that the number of “smurfs” has increased, said Sgt. Niki Crawford, of the Indiana State Police Meth Suppression Unit.

“Smurfing is just rampant,” Crawford said. “What we’re seeing is the cases where a cook would hire four people, now he’s hiring 10.”

Last year, Vanderburgh County, again saw the highest number of meth labs in the state with 116 reported. It also saw the most in 2010 with 95. Of the labs reported statewide last year, at least 74 percent were one-pot labs.

Along with the ability to hide the one-pot method inside a home it also is economical. Don Martin said his next door neighbor had a roofing company that fell on hard times. The home was the site of another meth lab explosion about a year ago.

“And I think that’s when things started going downhill was when his roofing company fell apart,” Martin said, adding that one night someone from his neighbor’s house ran over to borrow a fire extinguisher.

“They told us there was a fire, and they wanted to put it out. That was the first we had heard anything like that was going on over there.”

Back on the Southeast Side, Elizabeth Gonzalez lives with her four young daughters on Waggoner Drive. Like neighbor Redfairn, she also has grown tired of meth lab reports coming from the area where she lives. She also is sick of staring at the burned out home across the street.

“What would you do if teenagers walked by that and someone offered them drugs?” she said. “No one wants to live near drugs.”