Small Southern Indiana city’s tactics 'the most outrageous property rights abuse in the U.S. right now,' lawyer charges
Casey Lozier has lived on nearly every street in Pleasant Ridge.
He climbed trees in his front yard on Fairfield Avenue. Settled down with his young bride on Halcyon.
And celebrated Christmas Eve at his late mother’s house on Butler.
Now, it’s in his home on Spring Street where he spends his nights, surrounded by boxed-up belongings accumulated over 47 years, expecting he'll be forced out in July.
“If I had my choice, this is where I’d like to die,” he said. “But why would I want to be buried in a place that doesn’t want me?”
For the past 13 months, Charlestown officials have been on a campaign to rid the city of Pleasant Ridge, a low-income neighborhood they’ve officially called a “menace” to the city’s social and economic interests. They say it’s at odds with their idea of a re-imagined Charlestown – a clean bedroom community where they hope families will lay roots.
Instead of the pre-fab homes hastily built for munitions plant workers during World War II, city officials envision a mixed-use community within a community. They point to developments like Norton Commons near Prospect, Kentucky, and the Village of West Clay in Carmel, Indiana – both with high-end housing, quaint shops and outdoor gathering spots.
This push to reshape Charlestown has happened in the shadow of the recently opened Lewis and Clark Bridge – a first-ever connection between eastern Jefferson County, Kentucky, and Clark County, Indiana. The new gateway is projected to inject billions of dollars into the local economy.
Pleasant Ridge residents think the city’s nascent enforcement of the building code and nuisance law is a calculated effort in the name of economic progress to wipe out an entire neighborhood filled with people of modest means. They describe officials’ tactics as an orchestrated plan to fine landlords to the point that they have no choice but to sell their property at a loss to the only developer interested in buying.
Jeff Rowes, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that’s representing the homeowner’s association in a lawsuit filed last month, has called the city’s tactics “the most outrageous property rights abuse in the U.S. right now."
“Here you actually have dozens of homeowners and landlords who want to stay and be made part of whatever this new plan is, and the city appears to be willing to go to great lengths to get rid of very large numbers of people," he said. "And also, it’s kind of a super shady way of forcing people out.”
For tenants like Casey Lozier, whose landlord sold the duplex he lives in last fall, it’s left their futures uncertain. First, Lozier was told he’d have to vacate by the end of March. Now he’s heard it will be July.
“If I stay here and things fall through, and it doesn’t work like the city wants, I’ll be happy,” he said.
The Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Association hopes to derail the city’s plans with its lawsuit, arguing that officials engaged in illegal tactics to force the sale of property in the neighborhood. Among other violations, they say the city unlawfully imposed fines on landlords to create opportunities for a private developer.
The lawsuit argues that, despite the city's insistence that it has no deal with developer John Neace, who controls Pleasant Ridge Redevelopment, the two are in collusion. The city denies it.
Then, the lawsuit claims, in swooped the development company offering owners a deal: escape the fines by selling to Pleasant Ridge Redevelopment for a fraction of the assessed value. But there was a catch: The deal would happen only if they agreed to sell every property they owned in the neighborhood.
The fact that Pleasant Ridge Redevelopment — and that company alone — swept up properties at a rate of dozens per week is “a result of the city’s code-enforcement scheme,” the lawsuit asserts.
Greg Yeager, a landlord who sold all seven of his rental properties to the redevelopment company, didn’t wait for fines to accrue. He contacted the developer himself as soon as he received an inspection notice.
“When I called the guy buying them, he said, ‘I’ll tell Bob to stop the inspection,” Yeager said, referring to Charlestown Mayor Bob Hall.
He’d talked to enough fellow landlords to know what was coming, he said.
“The mayor forced us to sell, but he didn’t put a gun to our heads,” Yeager said. “... It ain’t worth me to be stressed out over this. The stress isn’t worth it.”
The developer bought the majority of homes in the neighborhood for $10,000, according to county property records. Many are assessed at around $30,000 to $40,000.
Neace did not respond to a call for comment.
Charlestown City Attorney Michael Gillenwater has repeatedly told the Courier-Journal that no deal between the city and the private developers exists. The city has declined to provide emails and other correspondence between city officials and the developer, simply repeating the no-deal refrain.
“They (the developers) see some potential,” Gillenwater said. “They saw it before anybody. And frankly, we hope other people see the potential here. But what they’re doing is they’re putting their money where their mouth is. We haven’t directed one person to sell their property to them.
“They have made it known in the neighborhood that they’re willing to buy, and they’re rolling the dice. They’ve got no deal with us.”
Mayor Hall did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
The strategy to transform Pleasant Ridge began in earnest in January 2016 at the direction of Hall, who has long vowed to redevelop the subdivision. He recommended wholesale changes to the neighborhood to a newly elected – and largely receptive – city council.
One of the new council’s first resolutions called for a “permanent solution” to the neighborhood it described as “the projects” – a common nickname for the area. Council members asked the mayor to use every means possible – code enforcement, criminal laws, animal control, health codes and any other regulation – to accomplish that goal.
Less than a month later, in February, the council called for new inspection of “at-risk” rental properties – those older than 65 years, constructed without permanent foundations or originally built with asbestos or other harmful materials.
The city can’t legally target a specific area, but City Council President Eric Vaughn has acknowledged that most of the houses meeting that criteria are in one neighborhood: Pleasant Ridge.
Just two weeks later, the city council changed the law to allow officials to declare properties in violation of the city’s property maintenance code a public nuisance. This moved the city toward being able to condemn a property using eminent domain under state law, should it choose to do so.
In June, Neace – club chairman of the Louisville City FC soccer club and owner of Falls City Brewing Co. – registered Pleasant Ridge Redevelopment with the state, according to public records.
By October, the landlords with the most rental property in Pleasant Ridge had sold to the redevelopment company – 120 parcels in all.
Then in November, the city tightened the screws again. A new resolution declared that fines levied for violations of the property maintenance code would only be waived if owners provided “permanent solutions," a departure from the city’s history of working with owners who agreed to mend their property.
Simply put, the city would no longer work with owners who wanted to fix up their homes. The houses needed to be removed.
As of this month, 140 of the 357 properties in Pleasant Ridge have been sold to the redevelopment company. The majority of those sold are rental units. Roughly 75 percent of all neighborhood properties are rentals.
Properties in the neighborhood have already been boarded up. Many are vacant because tenants have already moved out.
Casey Lozier says renters in the Pleasant Ridge subdivision are being pushed out to make way for new homes designed to attract homeowners. Scott Utterback/The CJ
As Lozier packs up his belongings, he wonders if the lawsuit has somehow slowed the march toward the destruction of Pleasant Ridge.
His search for a new home hasn’t been easy. He has a Section 8 voucher and lives off a monthly disability check, so he’s limited by cost. Lozier says he tried to contact a real estate agent the city hired to help Pleasant Ridge residents find new homes, but he never heard back from her.
On his own, Lozier has called about or toured roughly 100 properties in nearby Clarksville, Jeffersonville and Sellersburg. None have felt quite right. Lozier needs something on the first floor and something with a yard for his four dogs.
In some ways, the tension has eased, Lozier said. He worried that the developers would kick him out during the holidays, but he managed to celebrate one more Christmas and New Year in his beloved neighborhood.
He often drives around Pleasant Ridge, where signs with Mayor Hall’s image with a bright red line through his face are tacked up in windows and on chain-link fences.
Lozier is resigned to the possibility that all the homes will soon be just a memory, and that Charlestown won’t have any meaning to him at all.
Contact reporters Kirsten Clark at 502-582-4144, Kristina Goetz at 502-582-4642 and Madeleine Winer at 502-582-4087.