Nearly four years after it was condemned, a fire-damaged house at 337 Hilderbrand Drive still stands vacant. The house attracts homeless people, while large trees out front drop limbs, most recently onto a neighbor’s roof and truck. And no one officially involved has been able to do anything about it.

Not its former occupant, Charles Farlow, who says legal tangles prevent him from selling. Not one of the world’s biggest banks, JPMorgan Chase, which may or may not hold the deed, but definitely won’t fix the property. Not city inspectors, who at one point were reduced to issuing a blanket citation to “whichever entity is responsible.”

The fire-damaged house at 337 Hilderbrand Drive lingers in disrepair nearly four years after it was condemned. (Photo John Ruch)

Neighbors circulated a petition last fall that pushed the city to take more legal action, which still is pending, and they say they’ll believe in results when they see them.

“No one will stand up and say, ‘That’s my property. I’m sorry it happened and I’ll make it right,’” said the neighbor whose truck was smashed by the fallen limb, and who asked not to be named.

The Hilderbrand house is among thousands nationwide left in disrepair amid legal confusion and finger-pointing in the wake of the 2007-2008 mortgage crisis. Some major cities, such as Los Angeles, have sued or prosecuted big banks over vacant homes.

Sandy Springs has taken Farlow, Chase or both to court several times — even jailing Farlow at one point — with little result. City Code Enforcement Manager Yvonne Smith said she wishes state or federal laws would offer “more clarity … and more responsibility placed on the lien-holder” in such cases.

At a Jan. 6 court hearing, the city won the ability to demolish the house if it’s deemed a safety hazard, according to City Attorney Wendell Willard, but an official decision was not expected until another court hearing on Feb. 3. If the city does tear down the house, it will seek reimbursement, Willard said–but it remains unclear who, if anyone, would foot that bill.

Farlow, who runs Authentic Beauty Salon on Roswell Road, said he understands the neighbors’ frustrations.

“It’s been in some crazy — I don’t know what the word is — Catch-22, some kind of limbo,” Farlow said. “I’ve been stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

Farlow said the 2007 mortgage crisis caused him to lose several rental properties in Florida and elsewhere in Georgia, and put him in danger of foreclosure on 337 Hilderbrand, where he was living. He said he stopped making mortgage payment to the lender, Chase, and put the house’s ownership in the name of his mother, Myrleen.

A tree limb fell during a recent storm from 337 Hilderbrand onto a neighbor’s truck. (Special)

Then came the house fire on Feb. 16, 2013. City inspectors condemned the house six days later after finding “ceiling and walls are missing in certain areas,” among other damage, according to city Code Enforcement records.

Farlow said he couldn’t afford to repair or demolish the house. So he continued what he called a financial “game” with Chase, who he said previously refused to refinance his loan. He said he filed bankruptcies, sued the bank and tried various loan modification schemes, including a $1,000 “scam” deal with a Las Vegas man.

“I guess I’m a little vindictive,” Farlow said. “The government bailed banks out, but didn’t do anything to bail us out. … I thought, ‘If you’re going to play this game, I’m going to play this game, too, but I’ll play it even better than you.’”

In May 2014, the city arrested Farlow for continuing code violations, according to city records, and he said they jailed him for nearly 10 days. At the time, the city contracted jail services in the south Georgia city of Pelham, more than 230 miles away. Farlow said the jailing hurt his business and did nothing to solve his financial troubles, and he still is considering bringing a lawsuit.

“I run a business in Sandy Springs,” Farlow said. “I disappeared off the face of the Earth for nine-and-a-half days.”

The jailing did not fix the property’s condition. Farlow, who said he still sometimes picks up mail at the property, confirmed neighborhood reports of homeless people recently breaking in. “They left me a note asking if they could stay the winter,” he said.

Around the time of his jailing, and in the years since, Farlow attempted to give Chase the deed or arrange a sale, he said. He said he currently has a potential buyer, but that Chase has not agreed and wants a higher price.

But Chase’s exact role with the property remains unclear and in dispute. While Fulton County property records and City Attorney Willard say Chase current holds the deed, Chase spokesperson Elizabeth Seymour said that’s not true.

“We will work with the city toward a meaningful resolution for this property,” she said in an email. “Currently, we do not own the property and, as such, have no legal right to perform work on the property.”

A fresh condemnation notice was placed on the front door of 337 Hilderbrand by city inspectors following a Jan. 6 court hearing. (Photo John Ruch)

In an interview, Seymour could not explain why county records say otherwise. She said Chase considers the property to be in “pre-sale,” meaning a foreclosure could be pending, but that Farlow’s complex legal situation might be delaying that. “We would have been more proactive if we had foreclosed on it,” she said.

Code Enforcement officials began focusing on Chase in January 2015, city records show, and over the next six months got contradictory answers and actions from the bank. At first, Chase said it didn’t even hold the loan. After inspectors found Chase’s name on the deed, the records say, the bank said “service” for the property was done by a Texas company that never answered inspectors’ phone calls. In May 2015, Chase agreed to do such maintenance as lawn-mowing, but reversed that decision a month later.

City Councilmember Chris Burnett, who heads the local Bank of Sandy Springs, said he recently called Chase officials about 337 Hilderbrand and reminded them of the industry’s recent bad reputation for various big-bank scandals.

“I said, ‘This would be a great opportunity for your bank to avoid a negative public relations issue’ … and most importantly, they solve an issue that should have been solved years ago,” Burnett said.

Burnett said he also brought up a recent program where Chase gave $4 million in grants for housing and other revitalization in Atlanta and Gwinnett County. “I pointed that out and said, ‘How about pulling out a little of the 4 million [dollars] and get this one house resolved?’” he said, adding there has been no solid answer from Chase.

The house’s unnamed neighbor says the city should treat a “deep-pocketed corporation” as strictly as it did Farlow, “even if it’s a bank and it’s hard. You need to step up and do the right thing and make the right decisions.”

“The property is an embarrassment to the city,” the neighbor said.

Update: At a Feb. 3 court hearing, the city declared the property is a public safety hazard and got informal approval to move ahead with a pre-demolition process. For more about the court hearing, see our story here.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.