AUSTIN (KXAN) — The view from Diana Melcer Whitson’s front door in north Austin is eye catching for what she said are all the wrong reasons.

“It’s just gotten worse,” Whitson said as she looked at the house across the street.

The front yard is filled with all kinds of oddities.

“Mannequins that need to be dressed,” she pointed out. “Vacant vehicles.”

And then there are the painted signs throughout the yard.  

“It says, ‘Love thy neighbor, even if she is bat-s— crazy’”, Whitson read.

Whitson says neighbors in her community have been trying for years to get the owner to clean up. Austin Code Department records show eight complaints in the last three years.

A code department spokesperson described to KXAN Investigates a back-and-forth process where the owner would clean up sometimes to get in compliance and not act on other violation notices.

The code department even got a warrant to remove junk from the front and back yards, but the spokesperson said the owner kept collecting more stuff. After another code violation was posted on the property last October, the house caught fire early the very next morning.

The Austin Fire Department ruled the fire, which spread to the house next door, accidental, stating in a report a candle had fallen in the house, which had no electricity and “major hoarder conditions.”

  • Diana Melcer Whitson walks by the burned house in her north Austin neighborhood (KXAN Photo/Mike Rush)
  • One of many signs Whitson's neighbor has posted in his yard (KXAN Photo/Mike Rush)
  • Vehicle and other trash piled up outside the north Austin home (KXAN Photo/Mike Rush)
  • Side view of house in Whitson's neighborhood showing the impact of a fire nearly six months ago (KXAN Photo/Mike Rush)

Nearly six months later, what’s left of the house still stands.

“It should be torn down, but we’re waiting on the city,” Whitson said.

On the phone, the homeowner would not tell KXAN Investigator Mike Rush his plans for the property. Instead, he focused on his strained relationship with his neighbors.

“They don’t come straight to me and ask me my problems, or about issues,” said the homeowner.

Rush asked Whitson, “Do you feel that the city should have acted faster, that by now this should be gone?”

Whitson replied, “Oh, for sure. I mean. I think they’ve been dragging their feet quite a bit.”

Mary Johnson in east Austin knows the feeling. Two fourplexes caught fire in her neighborhood a year and a half ago. Just the slab is left for one that was destroyed, but the other, heavily damaged and unlivable, is still there. Both properties have become prolific junk piles.

“It looks like a dumpsite,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re looking at, basically.”

  • A large trash pile gathers on the property where two fourplexes burned a year and a half ago (KXAN Photo/Mike Rush)
  • The one remaining fourplex that still stands after a fire a year and a half ago in east Austin (KXAN Photo/Mike Rush)
  • Rubble piled up on the property where two fourplexes burned in east Austin (KXAN Photo/Mike Rush)
  • The same property where two fourplexes burned after the property owner cleaned up the trash (KXAN Photo/Mike Rush)

City records show, between the two fourplexes, there have been 23 complaints since early 2021, with 12 of those in 2023 regarding the condition of the properties.

A couple bought both fourplexes after the fire. One of the owners told KXAN Investigates the delay is from what she considers red tape from the city and one of her employees dropping the ball on getting permits.

“Doesn’t offer me nothing because I’m here living with it,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she can’t understand why the city, with all the complaints, hasn’t acted faster to take control of the situation.

But her problem has some competition. According to Austin Code records, there are 4,532 active structure condition violations in the city since the beginning of 2021, although Austin Code does not designate which are related to fires.

The city’s Building and Standards Commission decides if the city moves forward with demolition, and it meets once a month. 

In January, the members green-lighted the process to tear down the fourplex, but the property owner told KXAN Investigates she has since started working with the city to get permits to rebuild.

Soon after Investigator Mike Rush spoke with Johnson, the property owner had the area cleared and fenced. The owner said those steps were already in the works.

Johnson described the moment she saw it.

“I got on the phone. I called my sister, ‘Guess what? guess what?’ She said, “What happened?’ I said, ‘They’re cleaning it up.’” Johnson added, “I think KXAN made a great difference.”

As far as the north Austin house across from Whitson, the city’s Building and Standards Commission did vote on March 22 to approve a demolition order for the house, but it’s a process that can take up to eight months.

Speaking to the commission, the homeowner said he intends to clean up the yard as soon as possible and is trying to work with his insurance company to rebuild before the city tears the house down.