- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

ONTARIO, Ore. (AP) - The paint is chipping, the wood is cracking and there is no glass in the windows. The inside of the single-story house is dark, but through the window, wallpaper is peeling off in sheets and leaves have gathered in the corners.

Abandoned homes pepper Malheur and Payette counties both in the cities and out in more secluded areas. But they bring more potential problems with them than the image of a boarded-up eyesore.

Over the past few years, unoccupied homes have presented an issue among law enforcement in the form of the transient population.

“Sometimes these can be homes that were foreclosed on and previous owners were evicted, but then it’s stuck in this period with the bank and it sits there for more than a year until it gets on the market to sell,” Payette County Sheriff’s Lt. Andy Creech said.

He said the homes may also be inherited and remain unoccupied when the original owners die.

In 2014 and 2015, bodies were found on two separate occasions at a duplex located at 612 N.W. Second St. The first was Michael Heck, of Ontario, who was homeless and was found in July 2014 after his body had decomposed beyond recognition. The second was Rand Nilsson, another homeless man who had been known to law enforcement for several years.

He was found in August after dying from complications from medical conditions, police said.

Later, in October, a San Antonio man was passing through town on his way to Portland when he stopped at an unoccupied house on Pennsylvania Avenue in Fruitland. He made a fire inside of the house to warm up and fell asleep with it still burning. The house burned to the ground with only the foundation and rubble remaining. The man was arrested on a felony charge of arson.

According to Creech, the use of unoccupied properties by transient persons can present a large amount of property damage and dangers that will end in a property remaining empty for years.

“If they move in, they can damage the residence and it’s not always known to law enforcement until the property owners discover it and bring it to our attention,” Creech said. “There can be a lot of damage by that time, and the property owners can’t always afford to repair that damage.”

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said the main danger is fire. He said in Malheur County, these types of properties tend to be in close proximity to the city because of the homeless population’s lack of transportation.

Wolfe also said deputies also run into problems of littering, including garbage and human waste that comes the properties don’t have water and power up and running. He said his office usually hears of an issue during the colder months starting in October and lasting through May.

Those transient persons that enter a property usually do so by force, in which they are technically trespassing, Wolfe said. According to Creech, once they have moved in, it can be difficult to get squatters out. Creech said these properties are more spread out between city and county in Payette County, and issues arise throughout the year.

Creech said deputies keep an eye on these properties during patrol. He said they look for things that have been moved, new vehicles or tire tracks and footprints, as well as lights on inside.

“If we come across a building and we find people that we suspect don’t have permission to be there, we make contact with the property owners and see what they want to do,” Wolfe said.

He said there are several property owners who are indifferent and tell officers to let the people do what they want. However, most property owners take action due to liability, Wolfe said.

Wolfe said action can range from citations for trespassing on up depending on how much damage was done to the property.

“The consequences are up to the property owner. Law enforcement can’t enforce trespassing laws without the property owner pursuing charges,” Creech said.

Trespassing also can be a touchy charge, as most of the properties are not properly marked with “no trespassing” at least 660 feet in a square around the property, Creech said.

“If there’s property damage, the owner can pursue charges of malicious injury to property, which can be either a misdemeanor or a felony charge depending on the extent of the damage,” Creech said.

However, making contact with a property owner can be difficult, especially if they live out of town.

According to Malheur County Assessor Dave Ingram, the assessor’s office is only provided with the current mailing address of the property owner, which is how they conduct tax business in regard to the owner’s local property. Ingram said the assessor’s office conducts reappraisals on properties throughout the county and will only contact an owner if there has been a noticeable change made to the property, such as an expansion or extensive remodeling project.

Ingram said property damage also constitutes a letter to the owner.

“This is for tax purposes,” Ingram said. “If we come across a property that is run down, we note that on the count and adjust the depreciation as needed.”

Ontario is up for reappraisal in May, he said.

With mailing addresses often giving the only outlet for law enforcement to contact the owner, the process slows and it takes longer to notify owners and start addressing the issue, Creech said. The ability to easily contact an owner becomes necessary.

“If you can easily tell that they don’t belong there, you can warn them and tell them they can’t be there,” Creech said. “But it’s not always clear. Sometimes you can’t easily tell because they’ll look like tenants. Some of them know about that part of the law and so they have a line they give and they play on that uncertainty.”

Ingram said unoccupied properties have a definite impact on the community.

“But not in a good way,” he said. “It’s always better to have some activity and really get into that maintenance and really take care of that property. It’s always better to have it occupied in some way.”

Creech went on to say that the properties remaining empty create a nuisance in both appearance and unapproved occupation.

“They just invite people who are coming to look for things that they can steal,” Creech said. “It invites these people that you would not want in your neighborhood that might want to steal from you as well.”

Wolfe agreed that empty houses are problematic.

“(These) issues aren’t healthy for the livability of the community,” Wolfe said. “I understand that these folks have no place else to go and they’re seeking shelter in the colder months, but there are resources out there to help them.”

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Information from: Argus Observer, https://www.argusobserver.com

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