Four years ago, in an effort to fix up the neighborhood, the City of Phoenix tore down Steven Clark's modest house and built him a brand-new one. He is not inclined to forgive the favor.

The two-story brick and stucco home on 13th Way, just south of East Indian School Road, has become a financial prison for Clark, his wife, Betty, and their three children, he says.

He can't move out unless he pays the city almost $50,000 to cover the construction costs. Nobody wants to buy the house because the neighborhood is still run-down, he says. And the contract he signed with the city does not allow him to rent the house out.

We're stuck here. We're stranded," says the 41-year-old night security guard. They have turned the dream into the biggest nightmare you have ever seen in your life. They have stuck us here and there's no way out."

City housing officials say Clark knew what he was getting into when he agreed to participate in the program that paid for the new home. He had to make the choice," says Fredrick Warren, the city's housing services administrator. With the housing market sluggish, Warren says, Clark is no different than many homeowners trapped with property that won't move.

But the Clarks are different, an example of how one family can become entangled when the city tries to improve a deteriorating neighborhood.

In small steps, and sometimes against his will, Clark says, he was prodded down a path that led him to give up a small but suitable house that he owned free and clear, and to become beholden to the city for his family's shelter.

CLARK IS A $7-an-hour security guard. His wife cares for their three sons. Their house is furnished with nice, inexpensive furniture of plastic and particle board, and Clark is smoking Best Buy cigarettes as he steps to the porch.

Absent a visit of providence, they do not expect their lives will ever be graced with great wealth.

But Clark was determined to build what small stake he could, hoping there might be something to pass along to his children, so 14 years ago he scraped together the money to buy a two-bedroom house at 4010 North 13th Way, just south of East Indian School Road.

It cost $14,000 and needed work. Each year Clark would save what he could during the year, then use his two weeks of annual vacation to redo one room of the house.

New walls, doors, ceilings and a new bathroom were the result. We totally rebuilt the inside of the house," he says. The wiring might not have met city codes and there were some problems, he says, but for a decades-old house it was fine.

Then, in the mid-Eighties, the city began looking at Clark's neighborhood with an eye toward fixing it up. Two years of meetings were held with people who lived there, as planners and neighbors pondered what to do about the run-down houses, traffic problems and need for services.

Finally a redevelopment plan emerged, and under it the worst part of the neighborhood, including Clark's house, was declared a blighted area.

That declaration gave the city the right to flex its muscle of eminent domain and condemn and clear property. Clark believed he was seeing a gun pointed at his head.

They said they would go ahead and condemn the house and bulldoze it," he says. Clark says-but has nothing to prove it-that he and some neighbors soon found themselves drawing unusual attention from city inspectors.

Once he left a broken window cooler on his lawn for three days, and an inspector came by and was going to ticket him for it. Another time he was rebuilding the bearings on his Jeep in his driveway when city workers came by with a tow truck ready to take his car as an abandoned vehicle.

Clark says it seemed pretty clear to him that the city was building a case to swoop down when it wanted and take away his house, which by that time was worth more than $25,000 with the improvements he had made.

Patrick Hendrick, project manager for the city's Community and Economic Development Office, says the city's plan was not to take Clark's house or anyone else's.

We never held the club of eminent domain over the homeowners' heads in that area," Hendrick says. There were never any plans to go in there and clear out all that housing."

It sure looked like a club to Clark, and he wondered when it was going to land. ÔOnce they declared eminent domain, they had us by the balls on a downhill grade," he says.

What happened next demonstrates the differing perspectives of city housing officials and a frugal homeowner who feels his back is to the wall.

Clark was offered a chance to sign up for a rehabilitation program.
Under the program, funded by federal grants, houses that could be brought up to code for less than $10,000 were fixed up. If fixing the house would cost more than $10,000, it was a candidate for substantial rehabilitation," meaning it was essentially cleared away and replaced.

A city inspector decided that Clark's house needed too much work to be saved and would have to be scrapped.

Clark says he did not agree with that opinion. But by that point he had been sparring with the city for years, and believed his house would simply be taken if he did not agree to a substantial rehabilitation."

I felt like my choice consisted of ending up out on the riverbed with my kids or taking the house," he says. We were willing to do anything just to get them to leave us alone."

Warren says that, from the city's point of view, Clark was being offered a great deal. He would get a bigger, better house courtesy of federal grant money, and it wouldn't cost him a penny as long as he lived in it.

Only when Clark sold the house, Warren says, would he have to pay for the construction, presumably from the proceeds of the sale. Any money left over after paying off the city's lien was Clark's to keep.

He applied for the program," Warren says. We don't go in and say to people you have to participate in the program."

In his contract with the city, Clark agreed not to rent the house, to keep it in good shape, to insure it for the full value of the city's lien and to let inspectors come by to make sure he was keeping up the property.

The need for those provisions, he says, is clear-the house is not really his, it's the city's.

Not so, says Warren. It's Clark's house, the city official says, but the city has a lien on the property and must recover the cost of the house" if Clark sells.

But selling has proved impossible, says Clark, who put the house on the market for about eight months. Foremost, the neighborhood is still a hodgepodge of improved homes and run-down ones. Property values, he says, have not increased the way he had been told they would as the neighborhood was spruced up.

Then there is the house itself, he says. The contractor picked by the city did a shoddy job, in Clark's opinion, and a tour of the house confirms some of Clark's complaints.

The duct system is inadequate, and the bottom floor won't cool much in the summer or heat in the winter. When the upstairs toilet is flushed, it sounds as if a waterfall is running behind the wall of the master bedroom downstairs.

If you look at that vinyl they used on the floors, you'll dent it," Clark says.
City inspectors thought his old home unfit to be fixed up, Clark says, but the fact that [the new home builder] forgot to put 90 percent of the screws in the floorboards to hold them to the beams didn't seem to bother them."

Warren again sees it differently: The house was very well-done. In fact, he got one of the more expensive ones."

Hendrick points out that Clark's inability to sell the house is purely a function of economics, because the market has dropped, the value of property has dropped, all over town."

Clark knows that. But he also knows that, where once he had more than $25,000 in equity in his own home, he now has a hefty lien on a house he didn't want. His dreams of passing something on to his children have vanished.

The city, he believes, still holds a club over him. They can wait me out until something happens to me, until I die, then they get a free house that I bought the land for and the federal government built," he says.

Instead of a stake for himself and his children, Clark says, he and his wife, Betty, ended up with little to show after seven years of fear and uncertainty.

The pressure has destroyed my wife physically and emotionally," he says. There's so much pressure and tension in this household, and 90 percent of that has been because of the house."



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David Pasztor