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The bigger the nuisance, the tougher the fix

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On Monday, March 9, shortly after one in the morning, Denver police had a call of shots fired at an apartment house down the block from my home, in an otherwise placid section of west Denver. According to the cops, two Latino males wearing red fired several rounds through one of the windows of the apartment, tossed in a Molotov cocktail, then fled while firing more shots.

Miraculously, nobody was injured. Police found several spent shell casings and suspect a "gang axis" in the case, although it appears the intended targets didn't happen to be in the apartment at the time.

But any relief surrounding residents might have felt about the failed drive-by was mixed with mounting anger and frustration. The thirty-unit complex has been a thorn in the side of the neighborhood for years -- decades, really. The low-rent, crackerbox apartments tend to attract a mix of working-class folks in transition, many of whom don't speak English and have somewhat complicated domestic arrangements that often come to the attention of police. Yet as the latest round of outrage and sputtering protest demonstrates, it's not easy to get a place like this one declared a public nuisance.

People who live near the apartment house have found syringes and soiled diapers in their back yards and had front-row seats to shouting and slugging matches involving tenants, their relatives and paramours. They've complained to cops and zoning officials about loud parties and various code violations. In 2006 a haz-mat team showed up to remove what was described at the time as a hash lab, although the actual illicit substance in question has since been disputed.

Three days after the latest debacle, dozens of residents confronted city officials at a meeting organized by the Sloan's Lake Citizens Group, demanding that something be done about the place. To some locals' surprise, Tom Lee, the current owner of the complex, was also there to defend his management of the building. Lee said he performs background checks on all his tenants, evicts troublemakers, and has had far fewer police calls for service -- 25 in the past year, including six domestic violence calls -- than previous owners.

"This has nothing to do with the person I rented to," he told the largely hostile gathering. "I am just as concerned as you are."

Many of the assembled were having none of it. They'd heard too many promises to fix the place up over the years, only to see the problems persist. But as questions were fired at zoning and police officials, it quickly became clear that large, multi-unit properties such as this one are all but exempt from the city's nuisance abatement program. It's not that hard to get after a single-occupant property that's deteriorating or has become a haven for drug-dealing and prostitution, but the law isn't really designed to deal with entire apartment complexes. A large number of criminal complaints involving one apartment might result in getting that unit shut down for a brief while -- but not the entire building.

"Hire a lawyer," Jim Thomas, a nuisance specialist in the city attorney's office, told the crowd. "You have avenues for relief the city doesn't."

City councilman Rick Garcia pledged to help the locals find a private attorney to pursue a lawsuit against the property, at the same time pledging to work with Lee to improve the situation. Other attendees wondered if there might be some way to invest in the property and turn it into a more upscale complex, like some of the condos surfacing in Jefferson Park. The idea seemed to amuse Lee.

"You guys can get together and buy it from me," he offered. "Then you can have the headaches of dealing with thirty families, and I'll be laughing at you."

Right now nobody's laughing. For more on the kind of people who do end up on the wrong end of nuisance and forfeiture laws -- such as ever-combative landlord and erstwhile legislator Douglas Bruce -- see my 2002 feature, "Vendetta."

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