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Problem properties: Who are the lazy landlords and trouble tenants?

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Our Community Watchdog review of all code violations in the region's three major cities dating back to 2013 reveals those answers in this special report. Our Community Watchdog review of all code violations in the region's three major cities dating back to 2013 reveals those answers in this special report.
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TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL) -

Stop by Wilson Avenue in Johnson City and you'll probably run into Gladys Forney, better known as "mama or "the mayor."

"Yes, I'm the mayor of Wilson Avenue," Forney said. "You do me wrong, you'll hear about it."  

Cross her and you won't soon forget it. The 67-year-old has lived in the neighborhood all her life.

"It's gotten better than what it used to be," Forney said.

She loves Wilson Avenue, but knows not everyone takes care of it the way she does.

"I keep up my property," Forney said. "Some of them you couldn't pay them to go to a (neighborhood) meeting if you give them a million bucks."

Just look two properties over and you'll find an overgrown lot.

"His grass will be about knee deep before he cuts it, everybody else will keep their yard cut," Forney said.

Codes enforcers have cited the property owner there three times in the last year for the problem.

"We know the man," Forney said. "Oh, we know him well."

Johnson City codes enforcers know him well too. When we caught up with Chief Building Official Dave Jenny, he was out looking for signs that are in the public right-of-way. It keeps officers busy during election season, but throughout the rest of the year they mostly set their sights on problem properties.

"The citizens don't want somebody living next door to them that their house looks real bad," Jenny said.

Inspectors respond to complaints and also patrol for tall grass, trash in yards and dilapidated buildings and more often than not, those patrols bring them back to the same low-income neighborhood.

We spent weeks reviewing all Johnson City, Bristol and Kingsport code violations since 2013. We then narrowed down that list to only those property owners with at least five complaints. We didn't find any people with at least five complaints in Bristol. We did find some in Kingsport, but we discovered the vast majority came from Johnson City.

Of those multiple code violations in Johnson City, more than a third came on three streets that are all parallel to each other: Wilson Avenue, Hamilton Street and Lamont Street."

"That is an area we have to keep a really close eye on to keep it cleaned up and looking good," Jenny said.

We found 126 violations in all in just that area of the city alone and don't think neighbors haven't noticed.

"Some places the grass is real high and they don't take care of their own property," Wilson Avenue homeowner Harold Inks said. "That makes everybody in the neighborhood look bad."

Codes inspectors say trouble renters are mostly to blame but landlords also play a part.

"The tenants tending to live kind of trashy," Jenny said. "Sometimes there's a tenant that's just mad, they're getting ready to move out so they call in complaints just to give the landlords' issues. (Landlords are) trying to get by as inexpensively as they can. It's a business; they don't want to spend any more money on the property than they absolutely have to."

That brings us back to the piece of property near Forney's home and the man who owns it. His name is Kenneth Ray Miller and he's racked up 51 code violation complaints since 2013. His complaints are spread across 30 different properties.

Miller wouldn't talk on-camera, but did tell us the overgrown lots and trashy properties are not his fault. He admits the buck stops with him, but also tells us tenants need to help their landlords out.

In fairness to Miller, the city says the man does respond with action when enforcers send him a notice in the mail. However, that has not led to a permanent solution, at least near Forney's house.

"He needs to come up through here and clean up his junk and stuff," Forney said.

Gouge Land Partnership has the second most violations across the Tri-Cities. The owner says those violations are the tenants' fault.

"We have nearly 200 properties in the Johnson City city limits area," Mike Gouge said. "Nine out of 10 code violations that we receive are tenants that don't mow their yard, grass gets too high or they'll leave a TV out on the front porch or an appliance. The tenant is responsible for mowing the yard, keeping the outside of the house clean. We do get contacted and we address it. They're alerting us to things that we normally wouldn't know about. We can't drive to every house once a week to make sure the yard is mowed. When we get a letter we take care of the problem and move on."

Despite all of the violations in Johnson City, codes enforcers say the city is actually in much better shape today than it was two years ago, at least when it comes to the appearance of the city's properties. During that time Jenny says the city has increased the department's number of codes inspectors from one to three. According to Jenny, those two extra people allow the codes department to patrol every street in the city at least once a month.

Those who don't cooperate when they receive a notice in the mail risk getting cited into court, which could result in a $50 a day fine for each day the problem remains. Jenny says it rarely comes to that.

He also says the city made a big change this year, which should reduce the number of complaints against landlords. Johnson City can now also cite problem tenants for issues, Jenny said. In the past, that responsibility fell squarely on the shoulders of landlords.

Copyright 2014 WJHL. All rights reserved. 

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