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Thursday, May 27, 2010 11:56 am

Coalition taking on issues of older neighborhoods

Problem properties, garbage and infrastructure on the agenda

Weeds higher than a meter
PHOTO COURTESY OF ICON COALITION

The house at 826 N. Fourth Street has seen better days, and by Steve Combs’ account, it should have seen its last day more than three years ago. Siding hangs precariously from the squat little house as the exposed, unshingled roof sheeting rots away. Saplings grow from the foundation while weeds taller than a meter choke the yard.

“It’s not just ugly to look at; it’s a safety hazard,” Combs says. “People want to talk about property rights, but don’t I have a right to live in a safe neighborhood?”

Combs, president of the Enos Park Neighborhood Association, says the house was supposed to be demolished in 2008, but somehow escaped its fate, continuing to blight the neighborhood even still.

That house is one of about 32 boarded-up houses that dot the neighborhood of Enos Park, with between 200 and 400 such problem properties littering the city, attracting crime and garbage while warding off progress. Combs and his neighbors are fed up, so they’ve joined forces with at least 13 other neighborhoods, forming the Inner City Older Neighborhood (ICON) Coalition to push for changes in how the city handles problem properties.

ICON wants the city not only to step up enforcement of existing laws, but also to adopt a two-year limit on how long a house can stay boarded up. Such properties are already required to be registered with the city, but ICON says the owners should be required to update the city on plans to renovate boarded-up properties every six months. A registration fee that increases every six months would spur owners to action, ICON asserts. Fees under the group’s plan would start at $500 for the first six-month period and increase by $500 every six months for a total of $5,000 over two years.

ICON suggests that failure to register boarded-up properties and pay the registration fee should subject a property to foreclosure by the city, similar to a procedure adopted in St. Louis. That city also appoints a judge to hear only cases concerning problem properties, which ICON hopes to see implemented here. The group also wants the city to change zoning on multi-family problem properties to single-family if no meaningful improvement to a property has been made after one year. Combs says that measure would likely reduce the high rates of rental housing in neighborhoods like Enos Park.

The dilapidated house at 826 N. Fourth St. in Springfield
PHOTO COURTESY OF ICON COALITION
“We have a large stock of homes that were single-family homes at one time, and have since been cut up into multi-family rental units,” Combs says. “We do have some beautiful rental properties with good renters in them, but right now 70 percent are rentals. That’s an extremely high percentage, and it’s more difficult to create a family and community-oriented environment that way.”

ICON is setting its sights higher than just problem properties, however, and the group has already made its intentions known. During the recent city council debate over loud car stereos, for example, ICON supported a measure allowing the city to tow cars for the first offense of playing music from car stereos audible from 75 feet. Though the council eventually voted to tow cars for the second offense, Combs says the group considers it a victory because they now “have a record of those aldermen who are committed to stronger enforcement of city ordinances.”

The group also plans to take on issues with waste management, such as fly-dumping and the timing and routing of garbage trucks, as well as infrastructure problems like poorly-maintained sidewalks, streets and lights.

“These problems are generally present in older neighborhoods simply because they’re older,” Combs says. “We’re looking to garner political support and have a stronger voice in trying to resolve the problems of the inner city neighborhoods.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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