The house has been a mess for years, stuffed with seemingly all manner of paper, plastic, wood and metal. Stacks of videocassettes, broken electronics and knick-knacks spill onto the dirty, bowed floor. There’s no hot water, and the place smells bad.
Fred, Harry and Chris Klein can’t imagine living anywhere else. The brothers are struggling to understand why, for the first time in their lives, they might have to.
“The city says it isn’t a safe house,” Fred said. “I’ve been here 70 years and it hasn’t hurt me yet.”
He remained pleasant but resolute last week as a small army of local officials — code-enforcement officers, lawyers, even a judge — descended on the yellow frame house in Columbus, Ohio.
Columbus code and environmental violations dating to at least 2004 are coming to a head. And the three brothers, who have developmental disabilities, don’t have the roughly $75,000 the city says would be needed to bring their family home up to code.
“Maybe we need the mayor, or maybe the governor,” Harry said after Franklin County Environmental Judge Dan Hawkins toured the property on Thursday during an on-site hearing.
Code-enforcement supervisor Janine Aeh said the city has been patient, working along with the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities, which provides services to two of the brothers.
“When we go in to vacate a house, it’s usually pretty ugly,” Aeh said of the process. “But with this one, it’s so unusual, that our policy procedure wouldn’t have been adequate. It would have been almost cruel.”
Fred is 70, Harry is 68, and Chris is 59. They are former ride operators at the old Gooding Amusement Park next to the Columbus Zoo, and the brothers jointly own the house that belonged first to their grandparents, then to their parents. During one of the Scioto River floods, Fred said, their father “left through the upstairs window in a boat.”
To say they are sentimental about their dilapidated home is an understatement. “I’ll fight for it,” Fred said.
Assistant City Attorney Kristen Kroflich thinks that’s likely a losing battle. “We don’t want to fine or jail them,” she said. “But it’s not habitable. The floor’s caving in, the walls are bowed, it’s a fire hazard.”
Former Environmental Judge Harland Hale had told the Kleins in May to leave the house and tend to their personal hygiene. The disabilities board was set to provide temporary quarters. At the time, the brothers agreed.
“We offered to put them up in a hotel rather than have them go into emergency respite, so that they could stay together,” said Fred Copsey-Pearce, a service coordinator at the disabilities board.
But Fred, Harry and Chris went no farther than next door, to their sister’s house. They use it as a base from which to work — at their own pace — to undo years of hoarding and prepare for a renovation that, if it could happen, would cost more than the house is worth.
“They need help,” said Gilbert Rigsby, a neighbor who doesn’t want to see the house razed. “I think a lot of us would be willing. They need the house where they were born and raised.”
Copsey-Pearce said the Kleins have been offered help many times over the years. But they are free, like most other adults, to make their own decisions. They do not have guardians, and they successfully manage their finances.
A central question, Copsey-Pearce said, is “At what point does a cluttered house become more than a cluttered house?”
Chris says they should be able to live as they choose. He’s angry about the contractors who came weeks ago to inspect the house and clear debris.
Kroflich said she has held off on seeking a demolition order because she wants the brothers to have an attorney. The Columbus Bar Association sent Jack D’Aurora to Thursday’s hearing, where he talked with Fred and Harry about representing them at no charge. Chris refused to participate.
Whatever the future, Fred said he and his brothers won’t face it separately. “We’ve been together all these years,” he said. “Just like married life. There ain’t no getting a divorce.”
© 2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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