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Billings residents push for tighter regulations over 'flop houses'

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Posted at 8:52 AM, Dec 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-08 10:52:02-05

BILLINGS - South Side resident Eric Basye admires so many things about his community.

“Love the neighbors, the history, the proximity,” he says.

He says his family moved to Billings to specifically live in the South Side, a move that goes hand in hand with his line of work in urban community development.

“When we think about the South Side, there’s some obvious challenges that we can think of with the housing or maybe the crime. But I think that behind the layers what you see, are people who really care for each other,” he said.

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He sees the value of the South Side while also acknowledging its struggles.

Basye says about a year ago, he was calling police quite frequently for a problem property, across the street, even making a plea to the Billings City Council about the inattentive property owner.

“I watched some guys get stabbed in the car. There’s gunshots,” he said.

The property across from Basye is like several others across the city, not just the South Side, that police often refer to as flop houses. These properties have little oversight from the landowner on who’s taking up residence.

“It’s just people utilizing the space for whatever their end goal is,” said Billings Police Lt. Matt Lennick.

But Basye believes solutions have multiple parts. For example, he says there needs to be more responsibility placed on absent landlords.

“We have a lot of problem properties. We have a lot of landlords, and I think those are problems we need to address and figure out,” said Basye.

He also supports placing pressure on city leaders and state officials to tighten up laws surrounding nuisance properties.

“If the hands of the code enforcement are tied, they can only do so much,” said Basye.

Basye isn’t the only frustrated resident dealing with a problem property next door. It’s the same case for Paul Waller in Billings Heights, who sees junk spewed on the front and back yards at the house next door.

Waller says he’s worried about what could come next.

“It’s very disconcerting,” said Waller.

Complaints about properties, from the junk that piles up to the overgrown shrubbery, go to the expanded Billings Code Enforcement, which was expanded and funded by the public safety levy approved by voters in 2021.

 Officer Chris Simpson deals with many of these nuisance properties and says each situation is unique.

Sometimes his active cases involve flop houses. Sometimes they involve homeowners who collect items and store them on the property where they accumulate, but that resident is unable to clean it up.

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He says by the time code enforcement gets involved, clean-up happens in stages.

“Everybody that commits this offense or a homeowner that has an accident or whatever still has the same rights, remedies or privileges as the person living next door that is fed up with it the way the property looks,” said Simpson.

Basye understands that. It’s one of the reasons he’s so compassionate about the South Side community, recognizing the diversity of the neighborhood is what makes it a unique place.

“That’s why I am again looking at who are the owners of these properties and what are the metrics we are doing at the city level to ensure quality housing throughout the city of Billings,” said Basye.

He says a new income-qualified housing project is set to be completed on the Billings South Side called the Tapestry Apartments.

It’s a project being built by Community Leadership and Development, Inc., a Christian-based nonprofit working in the Billings South Side seeking to transform and empower struggling communities.

Basye is working to see the project through, which will give 27 families a place to call home when it's complete.

He believes if a community is having conversations about the impacts of flop houses and problem properties, solutions should also be considered.

“We are providing housing solutions to everybody, but we can do it in a way that elevates the community as a whole,” he said.

Related: 'Flop houses' suck police resources in Billings. Whose job is the cleanup?