UDOT buys homes to make way for I-15 widening, but neighbors say vacant houses bring squatters, drugs, graffiti

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) UDOT is buying 49 homes in Midvale to widen I-15, and 24 are vacant. The neighborhood is having trouble with homeless people breaking in and trying to squat there. UDOT promises to start demolition next week. Tuesday Dec. 11, 2018.

Midvale • Spencer Mears noticed homeless folk started wandering his neighborhood last summer when the Utah Department of Transportation began buying up homes — and leaving them vacant — for an upcoming project to widen Interstate 15.

“I see people pushing grocery baskets or on bikes that have all their stuff packed on them as they go through the area,” he says. Police say many have outstanding arrest warrants or drug problems and try to squat in the vacant boarded-up houses.

That’s not to mention the graffiti and vandalism that have hit not only the vacant homes, but also some that are occupied.

“Unfortunately, it’s been getting worse,” Mears says — even though UDOT and police say they are doing what they can to reduce problems they acknowledge often occur when UDOT buys up groups of homes to make way for highway projects.

“We’re working as quickly as we can through the process to get to the point that we can take down those vacant homes. Once we can do that, we know from history that resolves most of the issues,” says UDOT spokesman John Gleason. “There isn’t any trespassing when the homes are not there any longer.”

That history he mentions involves groups of homes left vacant for a time during projects on such roads as the Mountain View Corridor, Bangerter Highway and Redwood Road.

But Gleason says it takes about 90 days from the time UDOT obtains a house until demolition to allow obtaining needed permits, working to safely shut off utilities and removing any hazardous materials. It’s a house-by-house process that could leave vacant homes in Mears’ neighborhood for some time.

Gleason says UDOT now has 23 unoccupied homes in that neighborhood just east of I-15 at about 8400 South, the first of them obtained in late summer. It has reached agreements to buy another nine. It aims to buy through its condemnation powers a total of 49 houses.

“We’re slated to begin demolition activities next week,” Gleason says, “providing that everything goes well with utilities and permits.”

Mears says he and other upset residents will believe that when they see it.

“I have talked to them in different meetings. They told me it would be mid-October, then November,” he says. “Then, after that, I just stopped believing them.”

Meanwhile, Unified Police Detective Ken Hansen says his agency has stepped up patrols in the area to address problems.

“When you have a number of homes with the windows and doors boarded up, it attracts attention from the taggers and graffiti people, and people looking for a place to stay. It’s attracted transients to the area,” he says.

“Officers are there frequently, especially looking for any entries into the homes. When they discover that, they have been making arrests for trespass. In many cases the people have been found with drugs or have arrest warrants.”

Hansen adds that “we have some active neighbors who have the phone numbers of the officers working the area” and call them directly to try to quickly handle problems. Mears is among residents with officers’ phone numbers providing extra eyes on the neighborhood.

Even so, he says, problems continue. For example, “Over the weekend we had 12 houses tagged with graffiti. Even the street and the overpass were hit.” At least one of the homes tagged is still occupied, he says.

“There definitely has been an increase in patrols in the neighborhood,” Mears says, “but we’ve also seen an increase in police action as they have been going into the houses and kicking people out.”

He adds, “I am frustrated with UDOT dragging their feet.”

Gleason says the agency is moving as quickly as it can through required red tape because “we know it can be frustrating to live in that area.”