City clerk is landlord for house of horror
The predictable has happened at a crumbling rental home on Peoria Road owned by Springfield city clerk Frank Lesko.
The chimney recently toppled, leaving a hole in the roof now covered by a plastic tarp. The chimney collapsed shortly after Shawn Ward, who moved out in March, contacted Illinois Times to report squalid conditions in the home. Ward last month told the newspaper that the chimney was missing so much mortar that it could fall. Ward also called the city.
“Roof needs replaced, water leaking thru and growing mold, chimney is going to fall,” reads the complaint file memorializing Ward’s call. “Chimney needs repair,” wrote a city inspector who visited the home on March 29 and found four code violations, including the dilapidated chimney, a leaking roof and broken doors.
Within days, the chimney tumbled. Nearly two weeks later, repairs, aside from installing a tarp, have not begun. Lesko says he’ll get on it soon.
“We were going to get things tuck-pointed this year,” the city clerk says.
The chimney isn’t the least of it at a home with a history of code violations, according to city files and Ward, who took photographs before moving out.
“It’s just a mess,” says Ward, who moved last month, leaving behind an estranged wife and five-year-old stepson.
Ward says the extent of problems became clear shortly after he moved in about three years ago. When a drop ceiling in a ground floor room started sagging from leaks, Ward, fearing collapse, says that he took down the ceiling tiles himself, exposing water pipes and floor joists from above. That was more than two years ago, he says, and joists and plumbing were still exposed when he moved out last month.
Holes in the wall of the room that went to the outside were obvious, Ward said.
“I said ‘Frank, do you see the daylight coming in through the wall?’” Ward recalls. “He looked and said, ‘Yeah, we can take care of that.’”
Foam insulation sprayed from a can was Lesko’s solution, Ward says. Sprayed-on foam has also been used to seal doors and windows.
“He liked that foam insulation,” Ward recalls.
Lesko denies that the drop ceiling was defective. Rather, he says, Ward took the ceiling down as part of a remodeling effort.
The house wasn’t pristine when Ward moved in. For example, a chunk of Styrofoam had been stuffed into a window opening in the basement, then sealed in place with foam. Why would someone plug a window opening with Styrofoam?
“Just to make it a little more weather tight,” Lesko answers.
As opposed to putting in a window?
“Yeah,” Lesko responds.
A window in the garage is missing.
“The wind blew the window out, but it’s going to be replaced also,” Lesko explains.
Photos taken by Ward show a garage cluttered with boxes, paint cans and assorted debris. Ward says it was that way when he moved in. Missing sections of garage door have been replaced with “Re-elect Frank” campaign signs left over from Lesko’s days as a member of the Springfield park board. The toilet and sink in a basement half-bath were broken. Ward says that Lesko promised to make the bathroom operable, but never did.
Lesko denies promising to fix the bathroom. Plumbing connections to the toilet and sink have been capped, he says, but the porcelain fixtures remain.
The home had neither smoke detectors nor carbon monoxide detectors when he moved in, Ward says, and it took Lesko more than two years to install them. Lesko says that it didn’t take that long, but acknowledges that the house had no smoke or carbon monoxide detectors when Ward moved in. He says a prior tenant took the detectors when moving out.
“Sometimes when you have tenants, they remove things that aren’t their own,” Lesko says.
With Lesko slow to make repairs, Ward says that he performed some on his own. Although he isn’t a licensed electrician, Ward says that he replaced electrical outlets on the ground floor because they were cracked or broken to the point that wiring was exposed. Lesko says he never saw defective outlets.
Ward also said that he replaced missing and loose flooring in an upstairs bathroom as well as the sink and toilet. The sink, he says, was leaking and beyond repair. Lesko acknowledges that Ward fixed the bathroom.
“We asked him if he could take care of that,” Ward recalls. “He said ‘Well, it wasn’t in the contract, but if you want to take care of it yourself…’ The toilet was nasty. There was no cleaning it. You could have scrubbed all day.”
Ward says that he and his wife did a quick walk-through before agreeing to rent the house and didn’t realize the extent of problems. Lesko, Ward recalls, allowed them to move in without making a deposit because they agreed to paint the inside of the house.
The home lacks gutter on one side and a large segment is missing from another. During heavy rains, Ward says that water from the roof created a miniature lake in the front yard. Lesko, he says, refused to do anything about it.
“He said ‘In the city, you don’t really need gutter,’” Ward says.
Lesko blames the wind for missing gutter.
“It blew off,” explains the city clerk. “You don’t have to have gutters (under city code). I kind of like them. I think they help.”
At one point, the air conditioner stopped working and wasn’t repaired for a week, Ward says. In the meantime, Lesko showed his tenants how to jump-start the air conditioner by poking a stick through the top of the unit and turning the fan blades until it kicked on, he says.
“If you started it with a stick, it would come back on,” Ward says. “But I shouldn’t have to do that.”
Ceilings had water stains and dark mold from a leaky roof, Ward says.
“We bugged him, like twice a month, nonstop, to do something about the roof,” Ward recalls. “We said it was mold (on the ceiling). He said, ‘Oh, yeah, my house is doing the same thing.’ … He brought in a guy he said was from the insurance company to look at the roof. I was thinking, ‘Why is insurance taking care of neglect?’ He made the perfect politician. He always had something to say.”
Lesko purchased the home in 1993 for $57,000. He said he doesn’t know how many layers of roofing are on the house. Asked whether he has re-roofed the home since he’s owned it, Lesko said that he has patched portions.
Each month, Lesko collected $650 in two cash payments, Ward says. Eventually, he says that he and his wife demanded, and received, a reduction to $600 a month.
“We said, ‘We’re not paying you $650 a month, you haven’t done shit,’” Ward says.
Leslie Ward, Shawn Ward’s estranged wife, acknowledged in a brief interview that the chimney has toppled, but she said that she has no complaints about her landlord.
Why didn’t Shawn Ward complain to the city before moving out?
“I didn’t know what he (Lesko) could do to me, honestly, if I’d contacted the city while I was still there,” Ward answers.
City files show a history of code violations dating to 2008, some similar to problems that Shawn Ward described to the city and Illinois Times.
In 2008, the city recorded nine code violations at the house, including a missing garage door, faulty gutters, an unstable staircase, a missing handrail on the front porch, portions of an interior ceiling that had collapsed, a missing handrail, a leaking bathroom sink, missing smoke detectors and rubbish in the basement. The roof was also leaking, files show, and there were electrical problems and a backed-up toilet. It took two visits from an inspector and more than five months before the problems were fixed, according to city files.
In 2013, the city responded to complaints of garbage and an inoperable vehicle parked on the property. The garbage was gone within two weeks, according to city files; the vehicle issue was adequately addressed after the matter was referred to the city’s legal department, according to city files. Twice in 2013 and once in 2012, the city fielded complaints about high weeds on the property.
This isn’t the only property that Lesko has neglected.
In 2009, Lesko bought a home on Sangamon Avenue that had been placarded by the city as uninhabitable two years earlier. City code enforcers did nothing to force repairs until 2014, while Lesko was an alderman and eyeing a run for city clerk. Lesko last year told Illinois Times that he didn’t realize the home, which is across the street from his church, had any code violations until city inspectors informed him of problems in 2014 (“Frank’s fixer-upper,” June 11, 2015). It took Lesko more than a year to make repairs after inspectors put him on notice.
As an alderman, Lesko in 2011 voted in favor of a get-tough ordinance that requires property owners to fix code violations or face stiff penalties, including forced demolition. He said he received a letter this week from the city about problems with the Peoria Road house and had made plans to meet with a contractor.
“We’re going to get everything fixed on it,” Lesko said. “I would say, in two to three weeks, we’ll have things completed.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.