BOTHELL — A dusty school bus sits in front of a two-story house on the edge of a Bothell-area neighborhood.
In the back yard, a rundown sedan is parked with another like it hidden behind piles of black, overflowing trash bags.
The back door of the house is wide open.
Inside, holes in the walls mark where fixtures and copper pipes were turned into drug money.
The homeowner is in prison. His wife abandoned the place. In their absence, people have been passing through as they please.
The man deputies suspect to be living in the garage is gone. He left behind drug paraphernalia, a microwave, some canned corn, a couple of empty beer cans and a dirty mattress.
“This is a nice neighborhood,” Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy Dave Chitwood said. “Can you imagine living as a neighbor? This is why they want us out here.”
Anders Olin, a county code enforcement officer, said the house’s unsecured doors warranted a fine of up to $10,000. The amount depends on how long it takes for the violation to be fixed. The starting cost is $500 for the first 20 days, if it isn’t appealed. The junkyard conditions yielded a $150 fine, which could escalate to $300 or $500 if the front and back yards aren’t cleared.
Since 2013, the sheriff’s office has partnered with the county health district, code enforcement and human services to combat nuisance properties like the Bothell house.
Some of the crimes that constitute a nuisance property are drug use, prostitution, disorderly conduct and storing stolen items.
“Law enforcement can’t do it ourselves,” Chitwood said.
Social workers connect squatters and drug users with treatment and housing opportunities.
“Until they get dialed in with a social worker … we’re just going to keep meeting these people at different properties,” Chitwood said.
The team is dealing with 45 nuisance properties, with possibly 10 more on the way. The majority of these homes are in the north end of the county. Nine months ago, they were concentrated in the south.
The owners are usually banks or people who are out of state, elderly or deceased. Some are in prison or hospitals. This makes it easier for squatters to move in and the house to deteriorate.
The bank is set to take the house in Bothell. A bank spokesman said state and federal laws prohibit the bank from cleaning the property until the home is foreclosed.
Olin has his doubts. The bank originally set a June 29 auction date for the property, but canceled the sale in May, Olin said.
The rise and decline of nuisance properties is partially tied to the housing market, Chitwood said.
“If some houses go into foreclosure and they’re just sitting there, we might get a spike,” the deputy said. “In terms of active houses, I think we’ve addressed them and contained them.”
More often than not, the homeowners cooperate. Getting letters from three or four county departments gets their attention, Chitwood said.
The house in Bothell was the first stop for the nuisance property team on a sunny July day.
The next location was a house for sale in rural Woodinville, just inside the Snohomish County line. It was the first time the team had seen the place.
A 30-foot path from the driveway to the manufactured home was a junkyard maze. Empty pill bottles and needles led the way to the wide-open front door.
“This is truly unacceptable,” Chitwood said.
A couple of campers along the walkway were repurposed as chicken coops. The fowl are long gone but the odor remains.
It takes a few trips to get used to the smell, one deputy said.
On July 20, the owner tentatively accepted an offer for the property, according to Windermere Real Estate. Zillow and Redfin say the sale is for $229,200.
If the transaction goes through, the buyer should expect a letter from the sheriff’s office, Chitwood said.
“I would imagine someone buying that property has seen it and is planning on cleaning it up,” he said.
The team’s last stop was a well-kept house near Alderwood Manor, east of Lynnwood. They’ve been here before.
Mark Meinhardt answers the door. He’s the owner and rents out rooms.
Chitwood said Meinhardt is housing at least two heroin users.
Deputies are doing extra patrols in the area to deter other drug users from flocking to the house.
Meinhardt is taking positive steps, Chitwood said. The last time they visited, trash in the front and back yards was an issue. It has since been cleared.
“If I build a relationship with him, he’s going to work with us and (code enforcement) because he doesn’t want a $10,000 fine,” Chitwood said. “But at some point you have to draw a line and say enough is enough.”
One by one, renters came outside to see what was going on.
Tim Minnick exited the house with his bike. He doesn’t live there, but stopped by.
A social worker recognized him as one of the first people the team helped.
Minnick was living in a tent when they found him.
“I was given a chance and I took it,” he said.
Now he lives in an apartment with his cat, Max. He works at a temp agency and for his friend’s fencing company.
“I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without them,” he said.
On Friday, Meinhardt said he’s removed some tenants since the county’s visit and is working to be a good neighbor.
The county’s team mostly works in unincorporated areas, as well as cities like Snohomish, Stanwood and Sultan.
In Everett, police and code enforcement deal with similar cases.
In 2017, code enforcement opened 58 cases involving vacant properties, according to city data. Of those, nine had known or suspected squatters. The rest were targeted because of overgrown yards, trash or discarded furniture and appliances. In 2018, 17 cases have been opened. One possibly has squatters.
Special Operations Lt. Bruce Bosman, of the Everett Police Department, said squatters usually cooperate with city officials when they clear an abandoned property. If they don’t, police can apply for a search warrant to remove them and board up the house.
“The old-school way of doing it isn’t working,” Bosman said. “We don’t want to fill up the jails with people who are just trying to live.”
Like the county, Bosman said it can be tough to contact out-of-state banks or landlords of vacant properties.
“With our local institutions, we usually have pretty good success,” he said. “They want to contribute and make this a vibrant community.”
After the house is boarded, it’s up to the owner to take the next step.
Ryan Weber moved into his Delta Neighborhood home in November with his wife and baby. He noticed a house next to his was foreclosed on, but not vacant. The back door was wide open. The garage was a canvas for graffiti. Trash was scattered throughout the overgrown lawn.
No one was living in the house full time, but people came and went at all hours of the day.
Weber, 37, didn’t want to raise a family next to the nuisance.
His attempts to stop squatters quickly turned into a game of cat and mouse.
First he used cable ties to close the gate to the home’s backyard. Those didn’t last long.
Next he tried a bike lock.
“I thought they’d need a lot more than scissors to get through that,” he said.
Within a few days, the lock was gone.
Weber didn’t know what to do, so he attended a neighborhood meeting to ask for help. There he was connected with the city code enforcement department.
About three weeks after his call to the department, the back door was boarded up.
Weber hasn’t noticed anyone in the house for months.
The bank that owns the house has started taking care of the lawn. The trash is gone and the graffiti has been painted over.
On the inside, clothes, garbage and cans of food cover the floor. The walls are bare, but intact.
Now, all there is to do is wait for the bank to list the house for sale. When that day comes, Weber said he’d be interested in putting down an offer and renting the house out. That way he can avoid any future nuisances, he said.
Weber said he sees houses like this one throughout the city.
“A lot of people don’t know what to do,” he said.