When Darnell James bought the house at 12053 S. Michigan Ave. out of foreclosure, he thought he was doing something good for the community.
"My goal was to take some of these properties that banks are foreclosing on and give people some decent housing while not charging exorbitant rent," James said.
He fixed up the house and immediately found renters.
"I had some pretty good tenants," James said. "These last tenants had been there for four years. They didn't want to move."
But life in the West Pullman neighborhood proved rough.
The renters had a teenage son who crossed some local gang members, James said. Things quickly devolved from there.
In May, the family asked James if they could move out immediately, saying they feared for their safety. James encouraged them to go.
"Once all that trouble occurred — people breaking in and threatening them, threatening with violence and guns — I understood them leaving because I would leave too," he said. "It's just unfortunate."
After the family moved out, James secured the property, but it didn't do much good.
Thieves took the wiring and copper pipes, kitchen cabinets, newly installed gutters — even the bars off the windows, James said.
"Everything is taken out of it," he said. "It's like a shell. I was depressed about it. It's my money that I put in there, and people just take stuff."
The house was in such bad shape that the city's Department of Buildings notified him Nov. 1 that it had been deemed "dangerous and unsafe or uncompleted and abandoned."
James didn't argue.
On Dec. 4, the city filed suit against him in Cook County Circuit Court, calling the property a public nuisance. The lawsuit sought to have James demolish, repair or clean up the property, or allow the city to do so. The city posted 33 photos of the house, in various states of disrepair, on its website.
For James, the city's move was neither surprising nor necessarily unwelcome. Repairing the house would cost an estimated $50,000, he said, more than it is worth. And if he made repairs, vandals would likely destroy it again before new tenants could move in.
His seven-year experiment in bolstering the housing stock in West Pullman had failed.
James canceled his electric and gas service, but canceling his water service proved difficult.
He visited a city customer service office Dec. 12 and asked that the water be shut off. He was told he had to first register the house as vacant.
On Dec. 13, he paid the city the required fee of $500, and the house was placed on the registry of vacant properties.
But when he returned to the finance office Dec. 17 and again asked to have the water shut off, he was told inclusion on the registry of vacant properties was not enough to prove the house was empty, he said.