BILLINGS – City leaders are taking major steps in combating and overhauling some of Billings’ most notorious properties for criminal activity that attract violence and drugs.
In doing so, the city is now naming and “calling out” area slumlords who own these so-called “problem properties” in a very public manner, hoping to gain some traction on an issue that’s been plaguing Billings for decades.
One of those properties is the notorious Colonial Apartments located in the heart of the Billings South Side at the corner of South 27th Street and Third Avenue South.
“It’s a hub for crime," said Catherine Card. “It’s bad.”
Card is a longtime South Side resident but also a vocal advocate for ensuring safety and order in her beloved neighborhood.
“I began tracking the crime statistics and I found that really it has the highest crime rate in town that I could see,” she said.
She says the Colonial Apartments are sucking city resources dry.
Card took her pleas to the Billings city council, more than a few times.
And she gathered the numbers to back it up.
In July, she sent a letter to the council with staggering numbers for just how many times police and medical crews were called to the Colonial Apartments. In the span of 180 days from Jan. 1, 2022, to July 5, 2022, there’s been at least 110 police calls to the vicinity.
Card even notes in her letter that one of those calls, on July 3, resulted in a death. Also among the reported issues were a fire, two stabbings, a sex offense, and drug investigations, all of which can be tabulated from the city’s public crime tracker tool.
More specifically, Card illustrates just how costly the responses to this property are becoming for the city.
“For example, on April 17, 2022,” she writes in her letter, “the BPD responded 5 times to the vicinity of the Colonial (in just one day) for vandalism, weapons, and noise and twice for suspicious activity.”
“That sucks a lot of money from the city and state and federal coffers,” said Card.” Their life revolves around the Colonial. It is notorious and has been for many, many, many years and the city has declined to really do anything about it.”
Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski has said it before, and he’ll say it again.
“For the better part of four years now, it’s been our mission to rid Billings of its crime,” said Kukulski.
The city is now on a mission to aggressively go after “problem properties,” the homes or apartment complexes in Billings that create big headaches for law enforcement and city officials.
And most recently, city leaders put the landlord of the Colonial Apartments, John Skauge, on notice, saying he better clean up his apartment complex which many know as notorious for crime.
The crime numbers are astounding, and it compelled Kukulski to engage.
“That's why we're determined to do something about it and improve these properties," said Kukulski. “This owner owns several properties in town and so we're asking him to step up and do a better job.”
Back on July 21, 2022, the city sent an official letter to Skauge highlighting the Colonial as a “nuisance property” for not only structural issues but also the ongoing criminal activity and an “extraordinary call volume for a property of this size.”
The letter notes specific issues from Billings Code Compliance, including paint and graffiti, broken window latches, a broken fire escape, cockroaches observed on the first floor, and a substance that appeared to be motor oil dripping from a hole in the ceiling.
Billings police officers responded to the complex an astounding recorded1,600 times in a time frame from January 2015 to May 2022.
And Card says it’s also commonly known that Skauge owns several other rentals in town, some adjacent to the Colonial all with the same issues.
“Our plan is to start calling out and have a much more public conversation and maybe some peer pressure on these folks that hey, you may want to know that your neighbor who is fortunate and blessed to be living in a very safe, nice neighborhood happens to own 15 homes in town that suck up a tremendous amount of public safety resources,” he said.
MTN News reached out to Skauge by phone multiple times for comment, even traveling to his Billings home once, knocking on the door with no answer.
Kukulski says when it comes to all the complaints surrounding the Colonial he must discern and clarify what concerns exist.
“To say I was amazed at what I found would be an extreme understatement,” he said in his letter.
So if the problems have existed for years, why try to do something now? Kukulski says there’s an easy answer for that.
“With the Public Safety Levy and actually increasing the capacity of code enforcement and law enforcement, it's allowing us to be more proactive rather than just reactive to calls for service,” said Kukulski.
He says there’s a full-time leader with code enforcement now that was never the case before, and that the passing of the levy has almost doubled the size of the enforcement team.
“So that's why that’s part of what you're seeing,” he said. “And you're going to continue to see that. That's eight months that we've been at this.”
Still, Card isn’t so convinced. Living just two blocks away from all the crime she’s been rallying for the council to do more for years.
“There’s been gunfire in our alley and there are people that are high on meth,” she said.
She says in her experience there’s only one way to really motivate Skauge to change his ways.
“You really get the sense that there's not anything going to move him unless he gets fined a significant amount and threatening him or asking him to cooperate is not going to work,” she said.
But she’s not backing down. She says the South Side is her home and she loves it there. She envisions a safe community with a safe place for the homeless to go.
“I’m in touch with what the problems are when I live among them,” she said.
Kukulski agrees. He says a better Billings means tackling problem properties like the Colonial head-on.
“And so that's why we're determined to do something about it and improve these properties,” he said.