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City demands owner fix dilapidated Colonial apartments or demolish them

Citation filed in district court
Posted at 4:42 PM, Feb 08, 2023

BILLINGS- The fate of the Colonial Apartments in downtown Billings now lies in the hands of a Yellowstone County District Court judge, after the city of Billings formally cited the owner for code enforcement violations on the premise the building is a public nuisance.

The citation was filed on Jan. 27 after code enforcement officers spent months trying to contact and work with owner John Skauge on issues plaguing the property at 223 S. 27th St. Court documents stated July 14 was the first time a “courtesy notice” was sent to Skauge informing him of the condition of the property and directing him to make “needed repairs to the building or demolish it.”

After a second notice in late July and a verbal acknowledgment from Skauge about the problems, the Billings fire marshal inspected the property, finding serious and potentially deadly violations.

The filing found that “Windows in the majority of the basement units are nailed shut and covered with metal, preventing escape during an emergency.”

At a glance, it’s easy to see age has not been kind to the Colonial. There’s graffiti, peeling paint, broken windows, and its three floors of dilapidated grandeur.

MTN News first covered problems with the Colonial in late August, while the newly expanded and funded code enforcement division was already working on building a case against the property for numerous violations.

Repeated calls to Skauge for comment from MTN News have gone unanswered, so it's hard to say how many tenants live in the building.

Many have wondered if the building is on any sort of historic registry, but the city attorney’s office is not aware of any “historical” designation for the Colonial.

Those with the city of Billings say, now that the citation has been formally filed, Skauge has 21 days to respond to the city’s complaint.

The city also says, regardless of other actions like possible motions or settlement discussions, the court will issue a scheduling order and set the case for trial.

In the complaint, the city is asking the court to force Skauge to abate the property and make repairs or allow the city to demolish it, and costs will be assessed as either taxes or a judgment of lien on the property.

City Administrator Chris Kukulski did not comment on the pending litigation but has spoken previously about the property and the extended role code enforcement now plays when it comes to problem properties and slumlords.

“For the better part of four years now, it’s been our mission to rid Billings of its crime,” Kukulski said back in August. “This owner owns several properties in town and so we're asking him to step up and do a better job.”

As part of levy funding, the city hired Code Enforcement Manager, Tina Hoeger, who says her team has averaged abating a property a month.

But perhaps an unsung hero, when it comes to the attention placed on the Colonial is South Side resident Catherine Card, who says she spent most of last year rallying the City Council about the property.

She gathered data for the number of times police and medical responded to the property, with about 457 calls for service in 2021 alone. And her work also shocked city officials, propelling Kukulski to draft a formal letter to Skauge advising him of the ongoing criminal activity and an “extraordinary call volume for a property of this size.”

Card is pleased the city is taking action to clean up the Colonial, but also says she’s cautious about its future.

“I’d really like it to be a good history now,” she said. “But we desperately need housing for people who cannot get housing anywhere else.”

Card says at least the Colonial serves as a roof over the heads of those who may not qualify for housing elsewhere, a reminder of yet another growing problem in the city: affordable and accommodating housing for all.

Tenants who live there have even acknowledged the drug activity and the danger it poses.

One tenant who didn’t disclose her name said she pays $375 a month for rent and has been trying for months to get a hole in her ceiling fixed in her apartment.

“I see it every day. Yeah, it is looking bad,” said Card.

When asked about the status of the Colonial in a recent Q and A on the City of Billings’s Facebook page, Hoeger said that Skauge has retained an attorney and said the goal remains to get him to gain compliance.

“District court can take a very long time if we actually end up going into court,” she said.

If Skauge doesn't act, he could face fines of up to $500 a day.

Card says there’s another positive in this process: Perhaps what’s happening to the Colonial will serve as a warning for other landlords that the city is now armed with resources to contend with nuisance properties.

“Perhaps out of all of this, we as a community can learn that for all landlords you do adhere to the codes and the ordinances,” said Card.