Effie and Larry Stewart fought for years to secure the property next door.
Perched on a side street above children playing at Miller South School of Visual and Performing Arts, 564 Howe St. had become a magnet for riff-raff, loitering, suspected drug activity, loud music and altercations.
But the couple's successful efforts to acquire the property and improve their neighborhood brought financial headaches they never expected.
The city condemned the vacant house in 2015 after an elderly widow moved out. She died in late 2016. Through a reverse mortgage, the Stewarts watched their neighbor’s home became an asset of Bank of America.
Police visited the property nearly two dozen times in those two years. They found men in the street or skulking about the abandoned house. Cars blocked neighborhood driveways. Officers investigated loud noises, suspicious characters, a burglary, alleged drug deals and fights.
Larry Stewart, a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran and retired truck driver who carries a gun wherever he goes, said he went after a man who dragged a young woman off the property by her hair — all over spilled wine, he recalled.
Despite the phone calls and scheduled police patrols, no criminal charges were ever filed. It’s challenging to investigate crime on vacant property, said Dave Laughlin, a captain with the Akron Police Department.
Laughlin sympathizes with residents who won’t tolerate suspicious activity in their neighborhoods. But with no homeowner to claim harm at 564 Howe St., police would have to catch criminals in the act. Trespassing alone is just “too broad an offense” to enforce in every case.
And it’s better to build a case around a victim, Laughlin said.
“That’s the tricky part. Who’s the current owner (of the vacant lot) to see if this (suspected loiterer or drug dealer) has permission to be on the property?” said Laughlin. “We want people to feel safe in their home. We want a safe community. We want to create that kind of environment for our citizens. And it can be frustrating at times.”
“We’ve been working with the Stewarts on this problem house for quite some time,” said Akron Council President Margo Sommerville, who represents Ward 3 where the Stewarts lives. “And it’s not an uncommon situation when living next to blight.”
The Stewarts were happy to see their neighbor's home demolished in September 2017. If they could get the property, as they did with another empty lot behind their home, they could keep the lawn trimmed and litter-free, put up a fence and be the victim police need to prosecute bad actors who remain uncharged and overlooked in citywide crime statistics.
So the Stewarts leapt at the chance to buy the property two months after the house fell. They offered $750 but agreed to $1,000 when a Coldwell Banker agent wouldn't budge on the original list price.
With a chain-link fence around their combined properties, fresh landscaping and a new concrete driveway on the previously vacant side lot, police haven’t been given a reason to visit 564 Howe St. in over a year.
All was calm until the Stewarts were informed by their lender, NewRez, that the monthly mortgage payment would be going up from $379.90 to $1,244.78 — or more than 60 percent of the retired couple’s monthly income.
The Stewarts were told that about $5,000 in demolition costs, which no one told them Bank of America had already paid during the sale, were still being charged on the property.
“We didn’t do the research,” said Effie Stewart, 72. “We didn’t know we had to do it because we had a real estate agent that we bought it from. Now they’re talking about foreclosing on us.”
The Stewarts sent a letter in April asking for help from Sommerville and John Valle, the city's director of Neighborhood Assistance. A few months passed with no solution. Then the Stewarts contacted the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com, which questioned the city and county about the transaction and the demolition costs now threatening foreclosure.
Sommerville said the original plan was to have the Summit County Land Bank acquire the land after the demolition and erase the fees. Then the "clean title" could be offered to the Stewarts through the land bank's Side Lot Program. But the Stewarts, who wasted no time securing the property, bought the empty lot just two months after the demolition and before the Land Bank could act.
On Wednesday, after researching questions asked by the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com, the city informed the Stewarts that the demolition fee had already been paid at closing by Bank of America. But the fee was not removed from the property record prior to combining all the parcels now owned by the Stewarts.
The city was unaware that the Stewarts' mortgage company was now coming after them for money Bank of America already paid. In recognition of its error, the city's Assessment Office has agreed to cut the Stewarts a check for the $5,000 to get their lender off their back.
Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.