Pubdate: Fri, 19 May 2006
Source: Des Moines Register (IA)
Copyright: 2006 The Des Moines Register.
Author: Jason Clayworth, Register Staff Writer


The association wants the property owner to address area crimes, but 
he says he's taken corrective steps and works with police.

A Des Moines neighborhood group has filed what is believed to be an 
unprecedented lawsuit against a landlord who allegedly ignored its 
pleas to stop crime in an apartment he owns on the city's near-north side.

Police have been called more than 200 times since December 2003 to 
Gary and Suzanne Oeth's five-unit apartment at 319 Franklin Ave. in 
the River Bend neighborhood. The problems have ranged from barking 
dogs and fights to prostitution, robbery and at least one shooting.

"It's just been so ongoing that it's just established itself as a 
property that's favorable for criminal behavior," said Jeanne 
Johnson, vice president of the River Bend neighborhood group. "It's 
known in the neighborhood as the 'drug house.' "

Ben Bishop, the city's neighborhood inspections administrator, said 
he is unaware of any other person or group who has sued a Des Moines 
landlord over the actions of his or her tenants.

The River Bend group members admit that the lawsuit, filed this week, 
is unusual. But they say they felt powerless to coax change through 
standard methods.

Members say Gary Oeth ignored their request for a meeting with the 
county attorney designated to address the problems.

Oeth said Thursday that he has already taken steps to better screen 
his tenants, and that the shooting about five months ago happened 
soon after police requested that he not evict certain problem tenants 
because of a narcotics investigation.

"I'm getting blamed for something I was trying to help police with," he said.

The lawsuit describes the apartment as a nuisance. The goal is not 
money, the River Bend group says. It simply wants a judge to force 
Oeth to meet with the group and agree to clean up the behavior of his tenants.

Jason Coltrain, who lives across the street from the targeted 
apartment, said the residents have screamed profanities and sexual 
comments at his girlfriend and honk car horns at "all hours of the 
day and night."

"I've only lived here since July, and it's been the hot spot in the 
neighborhood," Coltrain said.

Linda Austin, who lives a few houses away, said she'll move because 
of the crime, most of which she blames on 319 Franklin Ave.

Austin has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years.

"It's just always something," she said. "All they do is drugs and 

River Bend officials have worked for decades to restore the area and 
convert apartments back into single-family homes.

The area, just north of downtown, once thrived with doctors' offices 
and family businesses that were mixed with towering Victorian-style homes.

By the late 1970s, many owners had left and the new owners converted 
the homes into apartments.

Neighborhood leaders say that they have made progress but acknowledge 
that they have work ahead. Persistent criminal activity interferes 
with the goal "to develop and preserve attractive, safe and sanitary 
housing," the lawsuit contends.

Public records show that the Oeths own about 160 homes, most of which 
are in Polk County. They purchased the 2,927-square-foot home on 
Franklin Avenue for $3,500 in 1994, according to county real estate records.

The River Bend group's lawsuit could cost thousands of dollars in 
court costs and other legal fees, Johnson said. If the battle drags 
on, she said, the neighborhood will look to get cash in lieu of 
satisfaction from the Oeths.

Gary Oeth acknowledges that he received a letter from the Polk County 
attorney, but said that he did not realize it was for a mediation meeting.

He said that he called the attorney's office and left a message but 
that no one called him back.

Terese Young, an attorney for the Oeths, said the couple will seek to 
resolve the issues before the lawsuit advances.

"He is sensitive to what the neighborhood is trying to do, and he 
wants to do whatever he can to help them with that goal," Young said 
about Gary Oeth.

Bishop, the inspections administrator, described Oeth as "a marginal landlord."

"There's always violations when we go out" to inspect to update 
rental certificates "but he always takes care of them," Bishop said.

He said neighborhood officials have requested a city ordinance that 
would yank rental certificates from landlords who fail to remedy 
problem properties.

Bishop said he has not recommended the ordinance to the City Council 
because it could leave hundreds of tenants and their children without homes.

"On its face, it sounds good. You're getting to stomp on somebody who 
hurts your neighborhood," he said.

"But you've got to look at the unintentional consequences."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman