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Calvin Smith, beside the abandoned, four-bedroom home that has been his neighbor for two years. Last assessment: $37,900. The kitchen in a former rooming house on West Fond du Lac Avenue, a duplex the city will likely demolish. Yves LaPierre isn’t the city of Milwaukee employee you want showing up at your house. He’s friendly […]

Calvin Smith, beside the abandoned, four-bedroom home that has been his neighbor for two years. Last assessment: $37,900.

The kitchen in a former rooming house on West Fond du Lac Avenue, a duplex the city will likely demolish.

Yves LaPierre isn’t the city of Milwaukee employee you want showing up at your house. He’s friendly enough. He dresses about as stylishly as someone in his job could: a vest with pockets on each breast that snap, Caterpillar shoes that look like a cross between Red Wing boots and Doc Martens, a millimeters-thick goatee.

But LaPierre is a coroner of foreclosed houses, a triage nurse in a ward so overrun that the situation, to outsiders, is beginning to look a little hopeless. Two or three times a week, the real estate inspector for Milwaukee’s Department of City Development zigzags across inner-city neighborhoods, spot-inspecting a half-dozen homes recently added to the city’s inventory. The greatest concentration is on the North Side, around the streets numbered in the single digits and low teens. Many of the homes here and on the South Side became vacant amid bank foreclosures, and all got on LaPierre’s list after years of unpaid taxes.

For many such properties, the recommendations of LaPierre and other inspectors can stave off or hasten life’s other certainty (demolition), and within the city’s inventory of more than 1,000 distressed homes, there are about as many fates to seal as asbestos fibers. Add to that an estimated 4,000 other vacant structures within city limits, and the backlog of troubled properties becomes the largest the metro area has ever faced. As the foreclosure crisis that ignited in 2008 now cools off, the trouble with vacant homes is emerging like a latent disease, and there’s no obvious serum at hand. Some cities, most notably Detroit, are pushing to level abandoned homes on a massive scale, but in Milwaukee – where each city demolition costs at least $10,000 – officials are still stacking chips on renovation and luring homebuyers with cheap-yet-fixable houses.

There certainly is no shortage. On a morning in late November, LaPierre sets out with Jason Golec, an inspector from the Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services, to survey the first of six homes newly acquired by the city. “Not gunshots,” the former jokes as he fires staples into a “No Trespassing” sign on the front siding. Golec’s job is to detail a “scope of work” needed to make the abandoned house habitable again, whereas his colleague’s is to recommend razing or a possible sale.

Placard in place, LaPierre runs around to the back of the house and scans the roofline, where ripples indicate rotting. “It’s probably never been redecked,” he says. Still, this house isn’t so bad. The foundation looks passable. Vandals have torn out the kitchen sink for scrap, but the basement furnace has survived.

“It may be gone soon,” LaPierre says, now shining a flashlight into a corner where an old oil tank hulks. There is far worse to come. Since LaPierre began as a DCD real estate analyst in 2007, the number of homes taken by the city as unpaid tax forfeitures has risen from 60 or 70 a year, he says, to 10 times that.

Calvin Smith, who has lived next to the abandoned, blue duplex for two years, says the only period during which it wasn’t vacant was when someone had “played landlord” by moving in several tenants illegally and charging them rent. The scam lasted until the city came and kicked everyone out of the house. “Are they going to tear it down?” Smith asks.

LaPierre can’t say for sure. He thinks the house might be savable, and the next two on his list seem to be as well. In the first, Golec shoves aside a long, wardrobe-style mirror that has fallen over a mound of refuse and belongings near the entrance to the basement.

“These are probably the craziest basement stairs ever,” LaPierre says, venturing down onto uneven steps.

“Cobweb head on this one,” he says, brushing the strands out of his hair. “This is pretty typical. Everyone leaves everything behind, in chaos.”

“It’s sad,” Golec says. “You see all the beautiful old woodwork and have to realize that, at some point, this was a beautiful home.”

In the next house, the two find shorn PVC and copper pipes in the basement and a stained mattress on the ground floor, weighed down by clothes and imitation fire logs. Rings on the second level indicate where a bathtub and radiators had once stood.

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On the way out, the inspectors pass a photo album with pictures of a smiling young woman, including one of her in a winter coat, sitting on a bench. “Somebody just left everything,” LaPierre says. “The archives.”

The day’s fifth house is snowed under by a layer of cottony vermiculite insulation that has somehow fallen out of the walls, and which could contain asbestos fibers.“It’s kind of a crapshoot,” Golec says, explaining that not all of the areas mined for vermiculite also contained deposits of asbestos. “I have booties and masks with me.”

Climbing the stairs, LaPierre turns a corner and runs into something with legs. “Ah!” he yells. But it’s just a stuffed animal. A dog. During inspections, the two sometimes stumble across the corpses of pets left behind to dehydrate and starve.

This house’s foundation bows badly into the alley; the efforts of a previous owner to brace the structure with two-by-fours has failed miserably.

“I’m assuming this one will come down,” Golec says, and the inspectors move on to the sixth and final property on LaPierre’s list, the last on a triangular block filled with abandoned homes. Once a rooming house, the duplex has sat open to the elements for at least a winter, and LaPierre notes signs of cheap fixes.

“Whoever owned this tried to keep people in it as long as he could,” he says. A shaker of garlic powder (now colored brown) lays on the kitchen floor, and freezing cycles have all but split the house down its center. Floors buckle into dramatic ridges, pulling the carpet taut like the surface of a trampoline.

 “I don’t know if you want to make this jump,” Golec says, peering into a gap in the central staircase that shoots straight through to the basement.

Nope. “There’s probably a condemnation order on this,” LaPierre says, and the two inspectors walk back down the front stairs to the street.

“Well, we didn’t have any dead pets today,” Golec says, “so that’s good. And we didn’t run into any squatters.”

“We’ll probably get the whole block,” LaPierre says, looking over the vacant tavern next door. If the owner hasn’t kept up with property taxes, it could end up in the city’s portfolio, too.

The remains of an attic bedroom on North Buffum Street.

Where do we go from here? The city plans to perform about 300 demolitions in 2014, and Ald. Michael Murphy says officials would probably do more if they had additional funding. Places like Detroit, Philadelphia and Baltimore are emphasizing demolitions to a greater degree, but Mayor Tom Barrett’s 2014 budget divides $11.7 million in public dollars between renovations and razing. “Cities move in cycles,” Murphy says. “Right now, we’re treating the patient and the symptoms. The heart attack has already happened.” Holding empty lots in the city’s land bank for a more urban-minded generation to develop could match the right property with the right developers at the right time.

But first, the neighborhoods need jobs. Lots more jobs.

With declines in inner-city income stacking up, decade after decade, programs attempting to encourage home repairs and ownership run into populations without the means to use them, according to Wyman Winston, executive director of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. “Even if I have a strategy for homes,” he says, “you need a strategy for economic development.” He points to the recent founding of several new inner-city business parks and a number of new WHEDA initiatives, including a program to relieve the difficulty of obtaining a loan for home repairs, and a partnership with PNC Bank to buy and restructure $4 million in distressed loans.

But even this is not enough. “We need to look at a financing strategy and how we can get at all of this” to prevent homeowners from moving out of homes in foreclosure, Winston says. “We’re building up a pipeline, but our pipeline alone is not enough.” A handful of developers, such as ACTS Housing and Gorman & Co., have had success in the private sector, buying and renovating abandoned homes. The city maintains a number of loan programs to encourage repairs and the development of rentals that serve low-income residents, and DCD recently rolled out a new rent-to-own program aimed at tax foreclosures.

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The organizing group Common Ground has leveraged the strong feelings of church congregations in neighborhoods, particularly Sherman Park, where congregants led the renovation of about 50 homes, 30 of which have been sold.

Last fall, a pair of churches on the near-North Side were negotiating with the city to take control of about 30 more abandoned homes to renovate and sell to qualified buyers. One of the pastors involved, Bobby Sinclair, a retired electrical services operations manager for the city’s Department of Public Works, toured a few of the homes in November, finding one electrical box in which important wires had been snipped.

“I think they might have gotten a shock,” he says, “or they may have realized it was aluminum wire, which isn’t worth anything.”

He made the tour with Lloyd Johnson, who had helped renovate a house across from Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church on North 25th Street. “People would come by laughing and say, ‘You guys just have to tear it down,’” Johnson says, sitting at a table in the home, which has been returned to almost-new condition.

The tour also included a stop at another house bordering the church, one that the two congregations hope to acquire and renovate. “In four to five weeks, we could have this house fully habitable,” Johnson says, looking around at floors, walls and ceilings that show no obvious signs of water damage. Someone tried to steal the cast-iron bathtub upstairs but couldn’t get it out the door.

“We’ve all heard about the crash and the sleight of hand in the financial markets,” Sinclair says, “and how the chickens have come home to roost. Now, it’s about fixing what’s broken.”

Looters removed a cast-iron bathtub from this badly damaged duplex built at the turn of the 20th century. Its assessed value has fallen to just $14,200, about a third of what it was in 2008, when the housing bubble burst. A previous owner who ran the property as a duplex made cheap fixes, but ultimately it sat empty, and the city took it in a tax foreclosure last year. Water damage makes the house an unlikely candidate for renovation – and a strong one for demolition.

Belongings picked over by looters or strewn about in disarray after an eviction, foreclosure, or both, are a common sight in the city’s vacant homes. Here, past tenants left behind a broken TV, unwanted furniture and a yellowing strip of flypaper covered in dead insects. Other objects found included artifacts from the lives of past residents: a grainy ultrasound printout, a dinner plate and a child’s book report on Roald Dahl’s The Twits.

Not all city-owned, abandoned homes are beyond renovation. This house on North 15th Street first became vacant in 2009 during a bank foreclosure, but the bank never took the property, and the owner later returned with high hopes to replace plumbing and electrical equipment stolen by thieves. Having lost her job, however, she couldn’t afford the materials she needed, and she didn’t qualify for a city loan, either, after falling behind on the house’s municipal taxes. In late 2013, the city completed the circle by taking the property in a tax foreclosure, and officials said they hoped to have the house back on the market in a couple months, warts and all. Last assessment: $47,200.

Michael Pace moved back to his childhood neighborhood, Thurston Woods, once home to Mayor Henry Maier.

A vacant, three-bedroom home, last assessed at $71,300, has dragged down property values in the area. Pace says his house’s depressed assessment means his family couldn’t move again if it wanted to.

Although the abandoned home has been less of a nuisance than a duplex on North 29th Street, which shows signs of break-ins and even the peppering of a shotgun blast.

Lloyd Johnson (far right), a member of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Milwaukee, is working with other churches and the Common Ground organization to acquire and renovate city-owned properties on the North Side, including this duplex on North 28th Street. Fixing up a house triggers “a domino effect,” he says. “First you see one pretty house in an area, then there’s another one.”