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New nonprofit wants to transform condemned houses 

Makeovers for eyesores

There are dozens of them scattered throughout the city, and many more that barely miss the classification.

And while the aesthetics of condemned houses may be what first cause notice, Tom Wasinger, supervisor of the city's Code Enforcement Unit, says they can actually be a safety hazard as well, often attracting vagrants and criminals. Code Enforcement is responsible for encouraging owners to clean up hazardous homes, and can even take possession in extreme cases, but lacks the resources to do that very often.

"As far as demo-ing a property," says Wasinger, "not only is it a lack of resources, but it's a very convoluted process."

Thus, in some cases, eyesores are left to rot for decades.

That's why Curtis Olson, a local investor and full-time volunteer, thinks his new nonprofit, Blight to Bright (ppcf.org/products/blight-to-bright) is needed. Run through the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, Blight to Bright hopes to encourage owners of neglected homes to donate their properties or sell them to the nonprofit at an extremely low price. In exchange, owners may be able to pocket a tax deduction, while unloading what can be an expensive and legally complicated situation.

Wasinger, PPCF's Eric Cefus, and Council of Neighbors and Organizations president Dave Munger all say they're optimistic that the program can make a difference.

"I think it's a very good way to get us out of some of the Catch-22s we've set up for properties," Munger says.

Olson says he's spent the last year researching the problem, holding hundreds of meetings with stakeholders and putting together detailed profiles of each of the city's condemned houses. He says that people often believe bad owners are to blame for blighted homes, but he's found that sometimes owners are too elderly to care for a property, or that a person inherited a run-down place they can't afford to fix. The properties usually have severe financial problems that "trap" owners.

"What I've found is, every house has a story," Olson says.

Once he gains control over a property, Olson hopes to free it of taxes, fees and legal complications before razing it to open the land for a new project. That might be a Habitat for Humanity home or Greccio Housing building, meant to serve lower-income people. Or it could be a community garden, or even a neighbor's garage.

The trick will be affording all those changes. Olson says he's looking for donations to Blight to Bright, as well as partnerships that can provide free or low-cost services on everything from legal work to demolition. He's also working with the city and El Paso County to see what benefits they can provide, and to see if a city policy change would allow properties in his program to have Code Enforcement fees waived. (County changes may also be needed.) He adds that he's not seeking any personal financial gain.

Olson hopes to start on his first home project in early 2014, and that Blight to Bright will work on two or three homes at a time, especially those that attract crime and hurt neighborhoods. Olson is also working on his own side project: He's bought tax liens on two blighted properties, which might eventually allow him to take possession of and transform them with his own money.

But don't expect the city to clean up over the next year.

"This is not a quick fix," Olson says. "This is a very, very slow grind."

stanley@csindy.com

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