Carla Kahler still recalls the day she moved onto Lawrence Street six years ago -- thinking she had made the biggest mistake of her life.
Two houses down, drug dealers ran back and forth across the street every 15 minutes, hiding out in an unsightly rental unit.
"It was really bad here," she said. "There was nonstop chaos."
But then someone -- not the city or any government leader -- took command of the situation. A new landlord bought the property, bringing in quieter, more responsible tenants. The majority of the problems disappeared.
While many in Sandusky despair, pockets of the city are being reclaimed by neighborhood residents, one house at a time.
Kahler, who is remodeling her house and landscaping her front yard, said the work of people like Al Washek causes a chain reaction.
Washek is one of several residents who hope to turn Sandusky's streets around by buying condemned or foreclosed homes and fixing them up to sell or rent to tenants who will respect the property.
"I'm looking at the big picture here," Washek said. "I'm hedging my bets, because I believe in Sandusky."
When Washek, 51, tore down a dilapidated garage beside a condemned house at 1104 W. Jefferson St., the neighbors stopped by to shake his hand.
"I have seen the neighborhood come back," he said, adding that efforts like his inspire a difference in neighborhood attitudes. "If you see someone with an ugly house living next door to you, you have no incentive to put $50,000 into yours."
One of his neighbors spruced up his home with new siding. Others began stopping by to ask Washek for advice -- or to borrow a ladder.
After his first home improvement experience, he started looking for "the worst house on the block" to take on as his own personal project.
He's since rehabilitated two houses on Lawrence Street and two on Market Street.
The 224 Lawrence St. home he bought for $8,000 was recently appraised for $100,000 after the improvements.
Washek said when he peeled away the musty carpet inside one Market Street house, he uncovered two crack pipes and other drug paraphernalia. A few houses down, at 816 W. Market St., he encountered rodent-infested rooms and nicknamed it the "rat house."
"I fix 'em up to a point where it's good enough for me," he said. "I firmly believe that if you rent junk, you'll get a junk tenant."
"Know your limits," he said. "It's not the pretty picture they show on that Home & Garden show -- you gotta know what you're buying."
Washek said he walks through each house several times to inspect it. He examines the exterior first. If the roof appears to be caving or the house sits lopsided, chances are the repairs will be too costly to make the endeavor worthwhile.
Termite damage, no driveway or lack of parking space are other red flags.
Washek runs a camera through a house's pipelines to check for leaks or potential problems. He's prepared to pay a specialist for the work he can't do himself -- such as electrical work or plumbing -- and factors it all into the budget.
"I try to empower everyone I meet," Washek said. "Everybody has some skill to help -- even if it's just pulling weeds."
The owner of Joe Sundae's and the Better Half restaurant started the businesses because he was tired of seeing the same shabby scene upon entering Sandusky from West Washington Street. He wanted a better way to welcome people to the city he's called home all his life.
"I know I can't control everything, but I can control my own little corner," he said. "If I make my part look better, it's contagious."
Relying on contracting skills he learned in the Marine Corps, the 35-year-old completed many of the repairs himself on the Better Half in 2002 and on the adjoining building he bought in 2004 to add an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. He already dabbled in rental properties, but enjoyed the renovation work so much he took on other projects.
He purchased two nearby houses on West Washington Street to complement his "corner" and is painting another house he owns at 222 Shelby St. It's the same street where he grew up.
Smith said he knows renting his properties won't change the demographics of the city -- where officials list 68 percent of the population as renters -- but it can go a long way to improve its appearance.
After realizing many others in Sandusky shared similar concerns, he started a landlord group to educate property owners.
"Our goal is to be a group of concerned citizens wanting to improve the city through better housing," he said. "It's helping other landlords help themselves."
The group's first meeting is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 9.
Smith said he plans to bring in monthly guest speakers to address issues such as screening new tenants, home inspection, repairs and accounting.
Ed and Jennifer Torres
The grandiose Victorian-style house at 702 Wayne St. immediately caught Jennifer Torres' eye.
Its paint was chipping away, the yard was overgrown with weeds, and the roof had deteriorated since the house was built at the turn of the 20th century. But the interior designer looked past the eyesores and saw its potential -- a charming wrap-around porch, the spacious windows and the quaint fireplaces in each of the house's six units.
While she envisioned painting each unit with a different color scheme and sprucing it up with furnishings, her husband, Ed Torres, saw something else. He saw the potential for more work at a time when new construction was sluggish and their company, Ameri-Crew, was trying to find alternatives to stay busy.
The couple bought the house for $63,000 in the spring and started to breathe life back into the grand lady.
"We wanted to put in about $40,000 to $50,000 in repairs, and we're about there," Ed said. "One thing most people don't consider is all the unforeseen costs, but we know to expect those on all our jobs."
Ed repaired the roof, replaced its gutters and took a pressure washer to the unsightly paint flaking from its exterior. As a 17-year veteran of the construction business, he also installed a new water main and replaced the old boiler system, which had leaks at nearly every pipe joint.
"The heating was so inefficient," he said, adding that the former owner was budgeting $800 a month to keep the huge house warm.
Jennifer said they kept many of the intricate details intact -- such as the fireplaces and staircases -- while updating the apartments.
Once they began advertising for tenants, the couple said they received at least 50 applications.
The Victorian house is only one of several they've rehabilitated through the years. They bought many of the houses, which might otherwise sit vacant, in sheriff's sales.
The couple's plan is to secure enough income through these homes to fund their retirement. But they also want to motivate others to spruce up the city they call home.
"All of the property we've done has doubled or tripled in property value," Jennifer said. "As we increase the property value, the city is getting better tax money, so it is helping."
Even those without a knack for construction can do their part.
"We're trying to get the message out there for people to be more proactive instead of reactive," said Jennifer, who regularly attends city neighborhood forums. "A lot of people just come with complaints about their neighbors ... but if they would offer to help by mowing their grass or taking out the trash, other people will follow."
When Sandusky resident Brad Gerold saw an opportunity to help his neighbor, he jumped at the chance.
Gerold, 47, bought a house last year in a sheriff's sale because the house's elderly owner lived on a fixed income and was unable to keep up with her mortgage payments.
The woman was an employee for Gerold -- who owned G's Pizza in Perkins Township -- until the restaurant closed, leaving her without a job.
"Hard times are here," Gerold said. "You're sitting on top of the world one day, and they pull the rug out from under you. I know a couple people who have decided, job or no job, to stay here and go from making $24 an hour to $10 or $11."
Gerold said he hopes to buy more houses, but approaches the endeavor with caution.
"I'd like to buy more, but some of these houses are so bad it's more work than I'd want to ever do -- it's almost like building a new house," he said. "You have to know where to draw the line."