By Carson Gerber
Tribune staff writer
There’s a house for sale on a dead-end section of South Purdum Street you could buy for $29,900. The property is in poor to fair condition, and sold as is.
You could buy it, but if you did, you’d be moving into a property contaminated by meth.
In September 2012, Kokomo police found an active meth lab on the property at 1719 S. Purdum St. and arrested three people for maintaining an illegal drug lab.
That same week, the Howard County Health Department condemned the house, like it does to every property where police discover meth manufacturing activity.
An Indianapolis-based company called Tax Lien Trust took ownership of the residence through a tax sale in February, and the house has been on the market ever since.
But it shouldn’t be. State law says any home polluted with meth residue must be decontaminated by a state-certified cleaner before it can be sold.
Nathan McCain, a trustee with Tax Lien Trust, said he was aware there was meth activity in the house, but there doesn’t appear to be any problem with it.
The health department disagrees, and the house remains condemned. County health officials say no one has cleaned the property to get rid of the toxic residue that could cause serious health problems to anyone who moves in, including liver and kidney damage, neurological complications and an increased risk of cancer.
“I wish they’d just burn the place down,” said 70-year-old Ray Prater, a retired Chrysler employee who has lived beside the house for the last 40 years.
Ever since it was condemned, Prater said, the property has become a target for vandals, and he doesn’t like living beside a former meth house.
“You know how kids are. There may be someone going in there and drugging up,” he said. “Who knows?”
The house on Purdum Street is just one instance of a crisis facing communities across the country: How to deal with meth houses.
It’s an especially big issue in Indiana, where there were more than 1,800 lab busts in 2013. Indiana was the third highest state for meth seizures in the country in 2012.
Howard County ranked seventh place in 2012 for the most lab busts in Indiana. Police seized 47 labs — a tie with Noble and Kosciusko counties. The number dropped in 2013 to 23 labs seized, but Miami County rose to eighth highest with 49 labs busted.
“In reality, those are small numbers compared to the amount of meth getting cooked out there,” said Kokomo Police Sgt. Shane Melton.
So what are Howard County officials doing to deal with the problem?
Bar the Doors
When a meth lab is seized from a house, state law requires police report it to the health department, which prohibits occupancy of the residence.
“We condemn them as soon as we hear of it. The end,” said Brook Milburn, an environmental health specialist with the Howard County Health Department.
That’s the case for around 30 houses in the county right now. One property has been condemned for 10 years after police discovered meth activity there.
Once the house is condemned, police padlock the doors and board up the windows. Milburn said that’s more than most counties do with meth houses.
“That helps us a lot,” he said. “It’s a great tool for us to keep people out of the house, but it’s an expense the city has to lay out every time they head out to one of these properties.”
After that, though, responsibility for the property lands in the lap of the owner.
State law says before anyone can move into the house, homeowners have to pay a state-certified cleaner to test the property and decontaminate it. The law doesn’t require owners to actually clean the property, however.
“There’s nothing in the rules that say you have to clean a meth house,” Milburn said. “It says you can’t live in a meth house.”
Matt Duncan, owner of Bio-Meth Management LLC, who has decontaminated around 20 residences in Kokomo, said cleaning up meth residue can be an expensive process.
For a small area like a one-car garage, he said, clean up could cost $1,500. For a large, two-story house, owners may be looking at a $20,000 bill.
It’s a pricey undertaking — one that many homeowners can’t afford. If it doesn’t get clean, then that’s usually the end of the line. Unless the city decides to demolish it, the house sits vacant. Then it becomes a health hazard.
“It’s a bad thing,” Milburn said. “If it sits there long enough, the windows get broken out and kids start messing around in it. It’s not good for the community, it’s not good for property values and it’s not good for the kids messing around in it. It’s just a bad deal all the way around.”
And while the city waits for owners to clean up the property, things can happen, like banks taking the house over and putting it back on the market. That’s what happened to the property on Purdum Street.
It may be illegal, but there’s little recourse to stop it.
Kokomo Deputy Fire Chief Nick Plover said if officials learn someone is trying to sell or rent a meth house, they inform the owner it has to be decontaminated. If people are living in a meth house, they have to leave. Beyond that, Plover said, he doesn’t know of any legal options.
Kokomo Police Sgt. Melton said officers do their best to monitor condemned meth houses, but they only respond to the properties if they suspect criminal activity.
“We can’t babysit these homes once they’re condemned,” he said. “We as police don’t have anything in it once we do the arrest or raid. We just seal them up the best we can.”
Milburn said city and county officials are discussing the best way to deal with meth houses, but there aren’t any easy solutions. Without guidance from the state, he said, counties are left to solve the problem.
“We’re trying to get a process in place so we don’t have these houses sitting around forever, but the law doesn’t account for it. It just doesn’t address it,” Milburn said. “ … Everybody knows that it’s messed up, but nobody knows how to fix it.”
Not every residence that housed a meth lab sits vacant, however. Milburn said 54 houses have been decontaminated since 2008, and the properties are open for habitation.
But officials only take action on the meth labs they catch. What about the houses authorities don’t know about?
“Any place where people are cooking or smoking meth is a public health hazard,” Milburn said. “But I can only deal with what I’m aware of.”
That leaves renters and homebuyers with the task of discovering whether a house has meth contamination, and Indiana law isn’t a helpful guide.
According to state statute, owners or Realtors are not required to disclose whether a house was used for the illegal manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance unless the buyer makes a “direct inquiry” into the matter.
Even then, the law only says sellers “may not intentionally misrepresent the fact concerning an … affected property.”
On the other hand, the home seller’s disclosure form required by the state asks owners to report to a potential buyer any hazardous conditions inside a house, including toxic materials, methane gas, asbestos or lead paint.
The vagueness of Indiana’s meth disclosure laws caught the attention of State Rep. Wendy McNamara, a Republican from Posey County, who this month introduced a bill requiring owners to explicitly say if a house has been used in “the manufacture of methamphetamine or dumping of waste from the manufacture of methamphetamine (even if the owner does not know whether the property is contaminated).”
"My intention is to protect the public from others who don’t seem to care," McNamara said in a press release.
The bill received its first reading earlier this month and was referred to the Government and Regulatory Reform Committee.
Even if the bill passes, it doesn’t guarantee home buyers won’t move into a residence where someone cooked or smoked meth.
Jim Horton, owner of HyTek Home Inspection in Kokomo, said checking for meth residue isn’t a standard test when doing a home inspection for a buyer. He said he might suggest it if he had a strong suspicion of meth activity, but generally the owner or buyer has to specifically ask for it.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of (meth use) going on, but few request to have a home tested,” he said.
Amy Pate, executive vice president of the Realtors Association of Central Indiana, said area real estate agents are becoming more savvy at spotting potential meth activity in a house thanks to training offered by law enforcement agencies at Realtors’ conferences.
“It’s a real issue in real estate and in our community,” she said. “Part of it is just making people aware of what a suspicious scenario is. A lot of people wouldn’t know that a 2-liter bottle and tubing could be an issue.”
Pate said if a real estate agent suspects a home has been used to cook meth, they call police.
In the end, Police Sgt. Melton said he hopes anyone who knows a house contains meth pollution informs authorities and owners pay for decontamination.
Meth residue can be absorbed through the skin, so children crawling around on carpet in a meth house are especially susceptible to its harmful effects, he said.
Even brief exposure to meth residue can cause shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, dizziness, lack of coordination or burns.
“We’re proactive when it comes to meth,” Melton said. “We track it, we trace it and we go after the bad guys … But I sure don’t want to be a landlord who knows your place had a meth lab and rent it out to a family with little kids. They’re going to get sick.”
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, email@example.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.