One Trap House Closes, Another Opens: Fighting Nuisance Properties In Columbus
Bright orange “vacant” signs hang from the boarded-up doors and windows of houses on Warren Avenue. This West Side neighborhood has kept Columbus Police Officer Edward Chung quite busy on patrol.
“We can enforce and clean up in one area as best as we can, but all they do is pick up and move from one spot to another spot,” Chung says.
As a second-shift officer in the Hilltop, Chung receives consistent service calls about what’s happening in these homes – but this pattern simply repeats itself.
“Internally, we keep track of it by communicating with our co-workers and we typically try and work a lot of the hot spots, I guess,” Chung says. “We have an ongoing record, a white board with houses that are moving pretty decent or we know of known dope dealers working out of certain houses.”
There are more than 1,000 vacant houses in three precincts on Columbus’ West Side. Law enforcement say these buildings harbor illegal activity such as drug deals, prostitution and gun violence.
WOSU recently rode along with Chung to learn more about how these properties impact those who live near them, and what the city is doing to shut them down.
Home Or Nuisance
Columbus Police says it needs to shift its prostitution enforcement to focus more on fighting demand, which includes shutting down houses where that activity occurs.
The Police and Community Together team (PACT), which last year replaced the controversial Vice Unit, plans to put out a new prostitution enforcement policy later this month, although details remain scarce.
Even though they’re technically vacant, some people do call trap houses “home.” One woman trying to escape prostitution, who did not want to disclose her name for fear of retaliation, said she turned to trap houses when she lacked stable housing.
“I’ve got a boyfriend I’ve been with for 11 months. I’ve been living with him for the past 10 months. I’m grateful to have him,” the woman said. “Before that, it was a wonder of what trap house basement I was sleeping in, what garage or abando I found empty, what john’s car I stayed in, and what I had to do to stay there.”
Still, nearby residents like Demetrius Mcelroy wish the houses would go away.
“On this block here we probably got, let’s see: one, two, three, four, five – maybe eight or nine?” Mcelroy says.
Mcelroy has lived on Warren Avenue since 1997. He says that as a child, he used to feel free to ride his bike around the neighborhood.
“Now you can’t do that,” he says. “You come out and see people shooting up on your sidewalk, or on your brick wall. Using your car mirror to get ready for a date.”
Mcelroy spoke with me through a screen door grill. He bought a guard dog to try to deter unwanted visitors from his property.
Breaking The Cycle
Mcelroy lives across the street from Jackie Hall, who is also familiar with the sight of criminal activity from his porch.
“I’ve seen SWAT break in and tear them down,” Hall says. “I’ve seen people get arrested because they’ve been sleeping in the houses and stuff like that.”
But Hall has been investing in his house and neighborhood. He says he stopped renting and decided to purchase his house a few years ago.
“The city actually gave me money to actually get my roof rebuilt, because it was leaking. They had a program for that,” Hall says. “I had a government program that rebuilt my porch for me and ended up laying new sidewalks.”
Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein says that if his office can prove in environmental court that a property is a nuisance, they can get a house shut down for a year.
“That can be a significant financial hit to a lot of these landlords, because they can’t make money from these properties for a year,” Klein says. “So it’s a very strong stick that we have in the goal of just cleaning up our neighborhoods and making sure that families and children don’t have to live next to a drug house where there’s rampant activity, gun and drug violence and trafficking.”
Chung thinks the best the city can do is try to keep the criminal activity at bay, or maybe slow it down.
“The crime’s always gonna be there,” Chung says. “It’s always been there.”
In 2019, the city successfully shut down 18 drug-related properties, five after-hours clubs and two massage parlors. Officials also sent out 404 letters warning property owners that their houses were in danger of closing. In 2018, 402 letters were sent out. In 2017, that figure was 431. The last three years have seen a spike in the number of letters sent to nuisance properties: in comparison, just 294 letters were sent in 2016.
Ultimately, Klein says the best thing that can happen to a boarded-up home is that it’s purchased from the city land bank.
Note: We updated the story to reflect additional statistics that were not available when the story originally aired.