Steve Knittel wants two things.
“One is to be left alone and the other is justice,” he said as he stood inside the mudroom of his home at 100 East First Street.
For Knittel, those two wants are related. The city has sought a court order that would deem his home a substandard and unsafe structure and authorize its demolition.
Last month, the Spencer City Council voted unanimously to seek the order. The process, several city representatives have said, has been drawn out over many years and has been allowed to reach this point.
As of this week, the city hasn’t been given a potential court date.
“This is the conclusion of a many-year-long process between the city and the owner,” Mayor Kevin Robinson said at the council’s March 18 meeting. “So this is the point where we are in the journey of this process.”
Knittel’s home is in poor condition. Tarps cover a significant portion of the roof. The home is heavily cluttered with his belongings and other items, including his dog and cat. Vegetation has overtaken the outside of the property.
The detached garage has missing siding, much of its door is gone, and has broken out windows.
When speaking with the Signal, Knittel said he had no comment as to whether his home could be considered unsafe or substandard.
Knittel said the home’s furnace is broken. A repairman he called to fix it wouldn’t enter the home, presumably due to its condition. He also had a water pipe freeze and now has a “water issue,” he said.
“They may have a point,” Knittel offers, regarding the city’s point of view. “When they say it’s unsafe, they say it’s uninhabitable… I’ve been living here. If it kills me, they’re free to do what they want.”
At last month’s city council meeting, Knittel told the council he’s aware “there are some things that need to be done.”
“I’m not really sure that if I get everything done, you won’t come up with something else,” he said at the meeting. “That seems to have been the history between the city and myself. I take care of one item and then you come after me for something else.”
He said he intends to re-shingle the house. He’s waiting for spring rains to wrap up before beginning that. As for other items noted in the city’s list of complaints, including siding missing on the garage, a broken window on the garage, exposed ribbed metal, he either isn’t sure what the exact problem is or contends the city hasn’t had a problem before now.
“The elm tree, I don’t know what to do about that. I really don’t,” Knittel said. “I could climb up and cut off a few branches, but I don’t think you want me to drop the tree. And I don’t know what it would cost to drop it.”
Knittel later told the Signal he does not have anywhere to go should his home be demolished.
“I would hope that the city does not want to go on record as forcing an aging, disabled, American war veteran and making him homeless,” Knittel said at the March council meeting. “Is that what you really want?”
That is not what the city wants, Robinson said.
“The last thing the city wants to do is displace any homeowner, any property owner,” he told Knittel. “But we have a responsibility to make sure the dwellings people live in are up to standard and the city’s worked with you for many years to try to get these things fixed. And this is the point in the journey where we’re at.”
City Attorney Don Hemphill then explained that the city’s resolution will send the matter to court, where the city will ask a magistrate judge to authorize the dwelling’s removal.
“The city’s been trying to get me out of this town for the 30 years I’ve been here,” Knittel said.
“With all due respect, Mr. Knittel, it’s about a dwelling, not about a person,” Robinson said. “So, that’s what we’re trying to focus on.”
“No, it’s not you personally, or any of you personally because many of the council have been replaced over the years,” Knittel said. “But it started out when I first moved in, just about every month, something came up. And I kind of take that personally.”
At the meeting, city council member Bill Orrison said the city’s been dealing with Knittel’s property “for a number of years.”
“We made a serious initiative a year ago or two years ago that we wanted substandard housing to be cleared up,” he said. “Fortunately or unfortunately, this is the second or third of them that has come to us.”
Orrison echoed what Robinson had said: The city does not want to displace residents, but that it has a responsibility to deal with “substandard, unsafe” dwellings.
Hemphill said the issue between the city and Knittel has spanned a decade.
“Obviously, Mr. Knittel has disagreed with a lot of the action the city has taken,” Hemphill said. “That’s what got us here.”
Knittel did offer up what he called a “proposition” for the city.
“How about if you locate a suitable house for me to move into, maybe provide a small army to move my belongings from one house to the other to help me get set up?” Knittel said. “Then, I will deed this property to the city. You can tear it down, put up garage, a gas station, a restaurant – whatever you want to put there. It’d be up to the city give it to a developer, sell it to a developer, whatever you want to do.”
Following the council’s vote to seek the court order, Robinson addressed Knittel’s proposal.
“You threw an idea out there. We’ll have some discussion, I think, around that if that’s a possibility.”
Speaking with the Signal at his home, Knittel said the city can “get me out of here” as far as he’s concerned.
“I’m getting tired,” he said. “I’m just getting tired of the whole business.”
The problem is he has nowhere to go.
“They’re gonna make me homeless,” he said.