by Hannah Dankbar
City of Harlan v Walter Rogers
Iowa Court of Appeals, January 27, 2016
Rogers obtained a house built in 1885 after the death of his father-in-law in 2004. Rogers made minor maintenance to the property at that time, such as fixing a leaky roof and cleaning up the yard, but Rogers lived in California and had problems maintaining the property. Between 2007 and 2014 Rogers received and paid a dozen special assessments. Nobody lived in the house during this time. Also during this time, the house was broken into multiple times and multiple antiques were stolen.
In 2011 Harlan police received a nuisance complaint about the house. As a result of that call a Shelby County Environmental Health Specialist inspected the property who reported that is was, “very apparent that the owners have let this property go for many years without any maintenance or upkeep.”
In 2012 the City filed its petition under section 657A.10A and sent Rogers an order stating that the house and garage were a nuisance and were in violation of local housing codes. Because Rogers made “substantial compliance with the pre-condemnation demands” made by the City, both parties filed for a continuance multiple times. In September 2014, however, Rogers’s attorney moved to withdraw from the case stating that Rodgers had not followed the advice of the attorney. After that, Rodgers represented himself in trial in January 2015. The Shelby County Environmental Health Specialist did a final assessment of the house and found that the house still did not comply with the City housing code. The trial court concluded that the property posed a danger to neighboring properties and residents because of its’ condition. The court declared the property abandoned and awarded the title of the house to the City. Rogers appealed this decision.
Rogers argued that the district court should not have determined that the property was abandoned. Iowa Code section 6577A.1(1) defines an “abandoned” building as one that “has remained vacant and has been in violation of the housing code of the city in which the property is located…for a period of six consecutive months.” The code offers a list of factors a court “shall consider” to determine whether a property has been abandoned. Rogers argued his desire to “maintain his ownership in the property in Harlan” is sufficient to overcome the conclusion that the property was abandoned, but the court did not agree. Even though Rogers was up to date on his property taxes and special assessments, the house did not have utilities for more than twelve years and was vacant during this entire time. According to inspectors the house did not meet code for human habitation; it was not a house that would be habitable simply by turning on the utilities. Rogers claimed he was working on getting the the house fixed and intended to move into it upon his retirement, but the court stated that Rogers subjective desire to maintain the property was not the controlling factor. Because the property has been vacant for more than six months, the court determined that it met the statutory test for a abandoned property and ruled in favor of the City.