FARGO - Pete Sabo has several explanations for why the house he owns just south of Fargo's water treatment plant has been falling apart for some two decades to the point that city officials have deemed it unsafe to live in.
He had a rent-to-own arrangement with a man who dreamed of homeownership, but the man wrecked the house in the process of trying to renovate it, he told city commissioners Monday night, Aug. 13.
Sabo, an owner of the Bison Turf pub, would have fixed the house, but a variety of illnesses afflicting his kidneys and gallbladder forced him to put repairs on the backburner, he said. "All I'm asking for is another chance to make this house a beautiful house as it was before."
The commission was deciding whether to condemn the house at 427 15th Ave. S. as a danger to the neighborhood. It's one of 40 or so houses that Sabo said he owns in Fargo-Moorhead.
Sabo's neighbors, who have complained to the city for years to no avail, told city leaders not to listen to him.
"Based on the facts presented and his actions over the last 20 years, there's no reason to believe that this house is going to be fixed now. We've heard this before," said Teresa Roberts, who has lived in a house down the street for about as long. "And if he was serious about fixing this house, it would've been done years ago."
Le Roy Anderson, a neighbor across the street, said he and other neighbors have taken turns mowing the lawn and removing snow for years. He got so fed up he even planted a birch tree to block the view, he said.
City leaders should force Sabo to take the house down, he said. "We've been waiting for this for a really, really long time."
The commission agreed, voting 5-0 to direct staff to make arrangements for demolishing the house by Aug. 31 if Sabo won't do it.
In asking the commission to condemn the house, Inspections Administrator Bruce Taralson threw the book at Sabo. In 2001, when inspectors first came to the house, they found 27 violations, he said. "The property has not been in compliance almost since that day," Taralson said.
Sabo has taken out building permits to fix the problems but never completed them, Taralson said. Xcel Energy shut down the gas in 2006 and power in 2011 while the city shut off water in 2011, he said.
Of the 10 criteria that can lead the city to condemn a house, No. 427 met nine, he said.
J. Michael Johnson, who lives one house over, had a more vivid description: "The backyard consists of a pile of used rafters, three to four years they've been there; an appliance, I'm guessing a washing machine; an awning, three trailers, a pickup truck, overgrown weeds, a pile of used siding."
Sabo said he did invest in the property but just needs more time. He said he put in new windows, a new roof and steel reinforcements.
City records show the house was deemed dangerous back in 2012, making it illegal for anyone to live there. Typically, the city would demand the property owner repair the building or demolish it, and Sabo did pay for building permits to make repairs. The repairs just weren't completed.
Neighbors told commissioners they complained but nothing was done.
Anderson said city inspectors told him they had no way to force property owners to demolish. Even when he saw people entering the dangerous building, the city wouldn't do anything, he said. "I called the police, and I said, 'It's not supposed to be inhabitable. I saw a guy walking in with a bottle of champagne and a couple of glasses and a girl under his arm.' I called the police. Finally they said, 'You should stop calling because there's nothing we can do.'"
City inspectors have said their reticence has to do with having to respect property rights. But, under pressure from neighborhood associations, inspectors have begun to crack down on dangerous homes.
Taralson has said his department now makes dealing with these homes a priority. City leaders appear to share that view.
"I hope this will send a powerful message that we're going to work within the parameters and the law of property rights, but we're also not going to tolerate dilapidated properties and allow codes just to go ignored," Commissioner Tony Grindberg said.