Our Views: Renovator is perfect fit for Janesville's Fourth Ward

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Janesville could use more people like Nathan Bussan.

Bussan is up to his eyebrows in renovating the house at 173 S. Jackson St., much to the delight of its former owner and Fourth Ward neighbors. Of course, to say the home needed work is like saying a vehicle flattened by a salvage yard's car crusher is a “fixer upper.”

The historic home has beautiful ornate architecture, a marble fireplace and hardwood floors. That's about all it still had going for it. As Marcia Nelesen reported today, Bussan toured the home after a deal for a house he wanted to buy and fix in Rockford, Ill., fell through. Rockford's loss is Janesville's gain.

Bussan almost got sick from the stench of cat feces and urine when he toured the Jackson Street home. He found dead cats and a trap to catch raccoons. The roof leaked, and ceilings had caved in. A tub and toilet were sinking into the basement.

Owner Margaret Zweifel intended to restore the home, but health problems intervened. For three years, the city ordered repairs under code violations. Neighbors and preservationists howled about the home's deterioration and took their cause to the media and city council. The city demanded tens of thousands in fines.

Zweifel put the home up for sale for $49,500. Bussan, who has restored more than a dozen homes in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, figured he couldn't pay more than $10,000. After all, he had bought and spent 21 months renovating an 1870 Italianate across the street. Though that earned him a well-deserved preservation award from the Janesville Historic Commission, he lost money on the sale. Still, a landlord with a history of city ordinance violations offered Zweifel $20,000. Fortunately, when Zweifel was undecided which offer to accept, Kelly Mack of the city's neighborhood services suggested she tour some of Bussan's projects. Zweifel then agreed to Bussan's lower bid.

That decision shows that Zweifel wanted the house restored. She just didn't have the means. Bussan might be the perfect alternative owner. His dad is a contractor, and his mom sells real estate. He grew up in Galena, Ill., which has many historic houses and buildings. He refinished old furniture while in high school and bought his first home to renovate soon after graduating.

Bussan's latest project will create another jewel in a neighborhood that's undergoing a remarkable transformation. The city has spent several years using federal block grants to buy, rehab and resell Fourth Ward homes. It has been good in general about pressuring owners to maintain their properties. Restorations encourage other owners to fix their homes and buyers who covet character in affordable houses.

The city also beefed up police presence to root out drug dealers. It enacted a nuisance ordinance that forces landlords to control renters. A landlord association and a neighborhood group, the latter led by Burdette Erickson, have been active advocates.

“It's one house at a time,” Erickson told Nelesen in a 2013 story about the transformation. “You can't solve it overnight. You have to have patience, and you have to have a plan. It is working.”

Erickson and other Fourth Ward supporters no doubt are pleased to see Bussan working on another neighborhood renovation, as well.

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