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'Flop houses' suck police resources in Billings. Whose job is the cleanup?

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Posted at 5:56 PM, Dec 06, 2023

BILLINGS- Up on Wicks Lane in Billings Heights, Paul Waller owns a robust acre of property.

“We have a great garden spot. I mean, we’ve done a lot of work on it,” he said.

With chickens and deer in the backyard, he says it’s a property he and his wife have worked hard to transform into a retirement sanctuary.

“There was no grass or nothing in here when we got here,” he said.

But as soon as he looks to his neighbor’s property, his dreams of building a sanctuary tank.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “Property values go down and having to look at all of this stuff.”

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It's junk, according to Waller, piled up on the front lawn and backyard of his neighbor’s home. He says he even watched as they pulled a tiny home up onto the backyard, something he says isn’t up to code.

It’s another example of how a problem property in Billings can be seen as an eyesore or safety concern for the neighbors surrounding it.

Waller also says people are coming and going all the time.

“Well, it’s just a breeding ground of criminal activity,” he said.

While police haven't associated the residence with anything illegal, they have a term for properties like it: flop houses. These places have become a rising concern of law enforcement, particularly during the recent string of gang-related violence that hit the area this fall. Following a Nov. 1 raid, police detained 10 people at a flop house at 312 S. 28th St., including two suspects,Myron Goes Ahead and Jane Knowshisgun, in the double homicide hours earlier of 31-year-old Kenneth Morrison and his infant son, Tatee'k Morrison, on the north side.

So, what is a flop house?

“It’s something that’s pretty fluid,” said Billings Police Lt. Matt Lennick. “The people move, the players change. There is no neighborhood that is safe from it. It’s simply whoever is living there and what they are comfortable allowing in their residence."

He says sometimes it's just youths who are couch surfing, finding a place to stay for a while. Other times, people with known warrants hang out and do illegal activity.

In the case of the home on the South Side with the recent standoff, the junk also accumulates.

And because police can't direct people to clean up their private property, they often rely on the strong arm of Billings Code Enforcement to help.

That’s where those like Chris Simpson come in. He's a code enforcement officer and former police officer.

“I have three properties within a hundred feet of each other,” said Simpson, taking a drive at first in the South Side to look at progress on a few of his active cases, but then heading to some of Billings’ most prestigious neighborhoods where there’s also cases he’s working.

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It doesn’t necessarily mean all these cases are flop houses. In some cases, they are previously burned structures or he’s dealing with a property owner who likes to collect things and doesn’t necessarily have the means to clean it up according to city code.

But he does also deal with flop houses and in doing so aids the police department to get problem properties cleaned up and nearby neighbors happy.

“There was some narcotic activity, warrants, people are living on the street,” said Simpson pointing to a property on South 30th Street. “There would be tents in the yard where they were camping.”

But after the work he’s done with the landowner, this property is now boarded up, cleaned up and on the market for sale.

Simpson says much of his work ends in a success story, where properties are cleaned up or torn down. But either way, it meets code enforcement and residents living nearby are happier with the outcome.

Still, it takes time to get there.

“Everybody that commits this offense or a homeowner that has an accident or whatever still has the same rights, remedies or privileges as the person living next door that is fed up with it the way the property looks,” said Simpson.

After a quick search of the city’s code enforcement active case tracking tool, there’s over 30 active investigations into properties deemed as decaying structures or nuisance properties.

Most, according to Simpson, come from residents filing complaints.

Waller has done that numerous times concerning the junk on the property next to him on Wicks Lane.

“It’s just junk,” he said

Flop house or not, he says safety and his property values remain the focus for all residents.

“We don’t want these types of properties in our town,” he said.