Note: This story was updated at 11:40 p.m.
From the outside, the homes look they’re in decent shape and not the worst in the neighborhood.
But inside and underneath, problems range from collapsing floors and settling foundations to leaking roofs and tens of thousands worth of mold damage.
On Thursday, a city board declared the five vacant homes to be unfit for human habitation, and members ordered them demolished within 90 days. The city could use federal money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to buy and demolish the homes.
The homes are in a small section of Highland View on three parallel streets: 105 Waddell Place, 101 and 117 Wade Lane, and 335 and 363 West Outer Drive.
Tennessee officials still have to approve the Thursday decisions by the Oak Ridge Board of Building and Housing Code Appeals. State officials will determine whether any of the structures contribute to the historical significance of the community, said Matt Widner, Oak Ridge housing remediation specialist. That’s required as part of the HUD programs.
The board is the only city entity that can order a demolition. The board orders on Thursday show, “without question,” that the buildings are not historically viable, Widner said.
If the state approves, the city could acquire the homes, which are owned by Rex Gass and Carden Rentals Limited Partnership. These would be voluntary acquisitions, meaning the owners are interested in selling the properties to the city. But purchase prices haven’t been set yet.
The Oak Ridge City Council would have to approve any subsequent property transfers to the Oak Ridge Land Bank Corp., which already has 12 properties, or a nonprofit organization such as Aid to Distressed Families of Appalachian Counties or Habitat for Humanity of Anderson County.
Oak Ridge officials said the long-term goal is to improve the neighborhood and return the properties to owner-occupied use.
“It would give us a nice starting point in an area that desperately needs attention,” Widner said.
Board member Aaron Wells abstained from the decision to declare the home at 105 Waddell Place, which is owned by Gass, to be unfit, and he voted against the demolition order. Five other board members voted “yes”: Chairman Bruce LeForce, Vice Chair Philip Nipper, Secretary Amy Seiber, and members Joseph Lee and John Russell.
The board voted unanimously to declare the four homes on Wade Lane and West Outer Drive unfit. Those properties are owned by Carden Rentals Limited Partnership. But Wells then voted against demolition, while the other five board members voted for it.
During the meeting, Wells said he needed more information and was not comfortable with the city getting into the real estate business.
But other board members expressed support for the city staff’s proposal and the use of the federal funds.
“I think it’s an outstanding program,” Nipper said.
LeForce said the five vacant homes are “out of code” and need to be demolished.
Municipal staff members said the city would be bound by federal guidelines, and the goal is to return the property to owner-occupied use.
“We very adamantly are not in the development business, nor are we in the real estate business,” Oak Ridge Community Development Director Kathryn Baldwin said.
In Highland View, she said, it could take several lots pieced together to create parcels that could later be subdivided for new homes. A certain percentage of rehabilitated properties would have to be for low- to moderate-income housing, but some could be for “market housing,” Baldwin said.
Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn attended the Thursday meeting and expressed concern about setting a precedent for landlords who might be irresponsible, although she said she wasn’t referring to anyone in particular.
Baldwin said the city has received federal Community Development Block Grant funding for many years, and there have been changes in how it’s implemented in Oak Ridge.
“I’m very proud of the fact that we’re making headway,” Baldwin said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.