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Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010 06:34 pm

The hole next door

Springfield resident fights bad property management

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The building at 805 S. Fourth St. has been deemed uninhabitable, though people apparently still live there.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

The dilapidated eight-unit tenement at 805 S. Fourth St. sits forlorn and dejected – once a striking Greek Revival home, now a bleak shadow of its former glory. Just steps from Springfield’s historic Dana-Thomas House, piles of garbage – old televisions, a tire and bags of who knows what – litter the ground beneath cracked windows and the peeling white paint of the massive, neglected Corinthian columns. A bright green sticker from the city proclaims the building unsafe, dangerous and unfit for inhabitation, just a few feet from a handwritten sign instructing visitors to, “Go to the side door.” The freshly-fallen snow bears several sets of footprints, revealing recent activity inside the decaying structure.

“I’ve seen the school bus pull up, a child get off, and a woman come out to get him,” says Karen Jacobs, a concerned Springfield native who, with her brother Barry Jacobs, owns the houses on either side of the condemned building. “There are clearly people living there.”

The owner of the building in question is Marlene Marante, town clerk and director of code enforcement for Bay Harbor Islands, Fla., a small island community south of Fort Lauderdale. Contacted by phone Jan. 28, Marante claimed not to know the city had condemned her property, or that there are people apparently living there.

“The city has not sent me anything,” Marante says.

But Jacobs says Marante should have known.

“While I don’t know whether the city has sent her anything or not, I do know that I sent her a letter with delivery confirmation, and according to the post office it was delivered,” Jacobs says. “As for her claim to not know that people were living there ... she is the landowner, and as such it’s her responsibility to know open and obvious things going on there, some of which were pointed out in my letter to her, which she ignored. Ignorance is no excuse.”

City records show numerous code violations for trash, weeds, falling mortar and other infractions at the property since Marante purchased it in 2005. Ward 6 alderman Mark Mahoney recounts incidents of theft, prostitution and other problems stemming from the property as well.

The city, Mahoney says, has dropped the ball. He points out that on Jan. 20, Marante was granted a six-month extension in court to take care of the code violations that prompted the “unsafe and dangerous” declaration on Jan. 12. But Marante wasn’t even in court that day, and Mahoney says he doesn’t know why the city granted the extension at all.

City spokesman Ernie Slottag says the extension was granted because city inspectors noticed more problems – pigeons roosting in the open eaves, an exterior door kicked off its hinges and more – that needed to be added to the list of code violations. Slottag said the city did send a letter to Marante to notify her of the Jan. 20 court date.

Under Chapter 170, Section 16 of the city municipal code, the city may fine property owners between $50 and $500 per day for allowing a building to remain in an unsafe and dangerous state or allowing such a building to be inhabited. The city’s Building and Zoning division has the power to seek demolition of the building, though Slottag says that requires taking the case to court.

“Of course, that takes a while, because we have to get everything to [the] legal [department] and they have to go before a judge,” he says. “The property owner has rights, too, which have to be taken into account.”

Slottag said the city’s tight budget complicates the problem because demolition is costly.

“We’d love to demolish more buildings, but we can only tear down as many as we have the money for,” he says.

Mahoney says the city needs to make the problem of blight a priority.

“It shouldn’t take months to get something done, and we shouldn’t have to complain about each individual property,” he says. “It comes down to enforcing the laws already on the books and following up on violations. There have been properties where we’ve had some success, but it takes a lot of squawking. A lot of times, the owner will do the bare minimum to fix the violation, but the problem doesn’t go away.”

In the meantime, Mahoney says a city inspection of the property that happened Feb. 2 may help move the process along, though he cautions the situation won’t likely be resolved with just an inspection.

Jacobs says she plans to stay on the problem until it is resolved.

“Springfield is probably one of the most historic cities in the country, and to see so many beautiful, historic houses just rotting away is really sad,” she says. “It’s a matter of pride and respect – respect for property, respect for neighbors. You need to take care of your property, especially if you’re from out of state. Don’t come into our city and leave these messes behind.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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