The two homes at 812 and 814 Silver Spring Avenue Credit: Andrew Metcalf

For years the two houses at 812 and 814 Silver Spring Ave. have sat vacant, but soon they could be coming down.

On Thursday, there was a large dumpster overflowing with debris between the two structures. The front porches of both homes were littered with trash and signs were posted by Montgomery County home inspectors on both front doors notifying the owner of housing code violations such as stray tree limbs and long grass. Two other signs warned about pending demolition applications.

On Monday, Lorraine Driscoll, a spokeswoman for the county’s housing department, said the property owner, The Fenton Group, was ordered March 24 by a District Court judge to repair or demolish the structures in 45 days. The owner has since applied for permits to disconnect utilities—a first step toward demolition.

Driscoll said the department received several complaints about the homes, including about the trash and debris littering the properties and the fact that they had been broken into.

“We informed the property owner to take immediate action,” Driscoll said.

If The Fenton Group fails to demolish or clean up the houses, then they’ll have to appear in court again and possibly face additional penalties, according to Driscoll.

Ulysses Glee, founder of the Silver Spring-based development group, said Monday he expects to have a permit to demolish the houses by the end of the week. He said workers are capping sewer lines and completing other utility work to allow demolition to happen.

“We’re going to be taking them down,” Glee said.

The demolition, if it happens, will follow a string of issues occurring at the two single-family houses.

The houses on May 4, 2017 on Silver Spring Avenue. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

At a County Council public hearing in September, nearby residents urged local leaders to do something about the unkempt homes.

“I have several words for these homes: degraded, dilapidated, blighted, vermin-infested, magnets for underage drinking, squatters, and other related uses and destructive actives,” neighbor Meghan McCoy told the council.

For years, she said she has reported the issues to the county, but little has been done to fix the houses.

Neighbors Kathlin Smith and Bernard Van Leer also expressed their concern to the council about the properties.

“For years, we and our neighbors have complained about two abandoned homes at 812 and 814 Silver Spring Avenue,” they said. “One has a very large hole in the roof allowing rain and snow to accumulate, likely weakening the structure. Windows and doors have been periodically boarded and then unboarded. Squatters have lived there at various points. And a few years ago, a fire broke out … . How can these conditions be allowed to persist?”

Debris on the porch at 814 Silver Spring Ave. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

The houses are in a portion of downtown Silver Spring that has seen a resurgence over the past decade. They’re next to the intersection of Silver Spring Avenue and Fenton Street—about four blocks from the Silver Spring Library, a block from Kaldi’s Social House and two blocks over from the Ripley District where several new apartment buildings have been built, with more on the way.

The houses were sold for more than $5 million in 2003, according to state real estate records. In 2010, The Fenton Group received approval from the county’s Planning Board to redevelop the houses along with the group’s adjacent office property into a complex with 58 residential units, a 110-room hotel and 28,100 square feet of office space.

Those plans, which are featured on the Fenton Group’s website, have failed to materialize.

County Council member Tom Hucker, who represents Silver Spring, said Monday he hopes legislation approved this month by the council will prevent similar situations in the county in the future.

For too long, he said, the county’s housing department has lacked the tools that other jurisdictions employ to deal with absent owners of crumbling properties, such as the ability to raise their property taxes.

The law sponsored by Hucker will create a registry of vacant homes in the county and enable the housing department to set a sliding fee schedule for code violations that will generate higher fees each time a property is cited. It’s expected to go into effect three months after it’s signed by County Executive Ike Leggett.

“We want to see an increasing, aggressive, escalating schedule of fees on these absentee owners,” Hucker said. “Absentee owners shouldn’t be able to leave a property to rot in a residential area and reduce property values or attract crime.”

Hucker said the housing department often failed to enforce code violations at blighted properties because owners would go to court to have them removed. The new law will enable the housing department to charge fees that will then be applied to an owner’s property tax bill if they’re not paid, Hucker said. If an owner fails to pay property taxes, the property will likely be sold or go into foreclosure court—forcing a sale.

“We’re hopefully sending the message to landlords that this isn’t going to be tolerated anymore,” Hucker said. “I look forward to seeing the schedule of fees. I’m also going to want to see really aggressive action from our housing department. If we don’t see it, they’ll be in front of the council explaining why they aren’t acting on these properties, because now they have the tools they need.”

The houses on Silver Spring Avenue are also a block away from 850 Sligo Avenue—an eight-story office building that was condemned by the county last month. That building was purchased by a new owner last month who plans to turn it into a residential building, according to Hanna Negussie, the real estate broker who handled the sale.