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Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 12:01 am

Fixing neighborhoods

Peoria takes a new approach to revitalization

More than 50 city officials and neighborhood activists gathered Monday to hear what Peoria is doing to revitalize neighborhoods.
PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON

 

Faced with budget cuts, city officials in Peoria charged with enforcing building codes and otherwise keeping neighborhoods spiffy have reorganized in hopes of revitalizing neighborhoods.

More than 50 neighborhood activists and Springfield city officials attended a Monday panel discussion hosted by Inner City Older Neighborhoods at St. John’s Prairie Heart Institute to learn about Peoria’s efforts, which include creating the position of neighborhood revitalization coordinator tasked with working with landlords, neighborhood groups, the fire department, police officials and anyone else with an interest in fixing up dilapidated properties and preventing urban decay.

“I never do the same thing twice two days in a row,” York Powers, Peoria’s neighborhood revitalization coordinator, told the crowd on Monday. “I wear work boots because I never know what I’m going to step in on a daily basis.”

Among other things, Powers hunts for ways to get roofs fixed when senior citizens on low incomes can’t afford repairs. He also takes calls from angry citizens who demand to talk to “the boss” about a litany of issues.

“I get to field those political calls on a daily basis,” Powers said.

It is too early to call the effort a success, given that Powers has been in the newly created post for just a few weeks and the city is similarly just getting started on what it calls a neighborhood wellness plan, which involves establishing priorities based on the needs of individual neighborhoods. As part of that effort, the city has used such criteria as unemployment rates, owner occupied housing rates, vacancy rates and median household income to establish the areas of the city that need the most help. The data used to establish priorities can be tracked, and so the city hopes to be able to measure success.

Joe Dulin, assistant community development director for Peoria, said that the city’s staff of code enforcers fell from 13 in 2009 to seven in 2013. The depleted staff was stretched too thin, Dulin said, and the city hadn’t established reasonable priorities. It doesn’t make sense, he said, to order a homeowner to paint a house and fix falling gutters when the vacant home next door is so far gone that demolition is the only solution.

Now, the city is concentrating on demolitions in some areas of town and code enforcement in others, Dulin said. The focus is on landlords. Tenants, for example, don’t get fined for failing to keep lawns cut. Rather, Dulin said, the citation goes to the landlord. Instead of allowing fines to pile up, the city tacks them onto property tax bills.

“We’re really focusing on older neighborhoods with this plan,” Dulin said. “I can’t tell you it’s been a great success. I can’t say that the city had realized lots of improvement under the (prior way). It’s time we tried something different, and this is our approach.”

Powers’ duties are still evolving, Dulin said, and he estimated that it will take several years before the city knows whether the new approach is making a difference.

“We can’t wave a magic wand and solve all your problems,” Dulin said. “We’re excited for what the future might bring. I hope to come back in three or four years and tell you all about the success we’ve had.”

Dulin sounded apologetic when he said it takes Peoria as long as a year to demolish a building if the property owner isn’t cooperative.

“It’s not the quickest process,” Dulin said while activists chuckled, knowing that it can take much longer in Springfield.

Peoria might borrow at least one trick from the capital city. When Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin asked whether the city is working with the housing authority in Peoria to cut off Section 8 vouchers for problem properties, much like Springfield did to force improvements at the MacArthur Park apartments, Dulin said the city is looking into that now.

“It’s funny you should ask,” Dulin told the alderman.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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