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Thursday, July 29, 2010 01:02 am

Boarded properties flying under city’s radar

Expired permits for vacant houses leave blight unchecked


The boarded house at 920 S. 11th St. is just one of many problem properties that have slipped through the cracks as regulators scramble to track hundreds of vacant houses.

The walnut saplings growing from the foundation of the house at 920 S. 11th St. in Springfield have grown so large, they obscure most of the house. Whitewashed plywood covers the door and windows of this dilapidated bungalow, and rust stains the siding where the gutters have given up, leaking rainwater from the rotting roof onto the tiny front porch.

The house was boarded up in December 2008 and scheduled to be demolished by the city, but more than a year and a half later, it still stands as a testament to the problem of blighted properties in Springfield.

The city requires uninhabited open buildings to be boarded up and registered with the city’s Building Division, with a permit and a building plan in place to return boarded properties to useful service. The latest permit for the house at 920 S. 11th St. was issued in 2009, but it has since expired. An analysis of the registry by Illinois Times shows that house is just one of many that have fallen off the radar of regulators tasked with tracking hundreds of vacant buildings in Springfield.

The list shows 202 buildings with now-expired permits issued since the start of 2009. Some of the expired permits were for properties that have been renovated and returned to useful service, but other permits simply have not been renewed. It is unclear how many of the expired permits fall into each category. Twenty-eight active boarding permits were issued to lending institutions, which suggests those properties were victims of foreclosure.

So far in 2010, the city has issued 283 permits for boarded houses, of which 136 permits are currently active. A boarded property that receives a permit every three months would have four permits per year and would be counted four times in the total number of permits issued annually.

John Sadowski, plan examiner for the Department of Public Works Building & Zoning Division, says the number of permits issued has grown through the years due to intensified enforcement efforts. The city issued 68 permits in 2006, 154 in 2007, 322 in 2008 and 500 in 2009, Sadowski says, adding that the recent loss of two staff members in his division has put a damper on enforcement.

“It has certainly made it harder to do the job,” Sadowski says, “I don’t expect to be expanding the number of permits we issue this year.”

Sadowski’s division tracks 671 buildings in Springfield currently designated as “occupancy prohibited.” Some of those represent residents whose utilities have simply been shut off for nonpayment, so they don’t belong on the registry of vacant properties, Sadowski says. But many of the buildings with expired permits belong to owners who skirt the system and ignore letters from the city telling them to register. New permits cost $100 and last six months, while renewed permits cost $250 and last three months.

“I don’t know too many building owners who would volunteer to pay a thousand dollars to register a vacant building,” Sadowski says, explaining that the responsibility for registration lies with owners. The permit system generated $109,180 for the city in 2009 and $63,319 in the first half of 2010 – all of which goes into the city’s general fund.

Noncompliant owners must be taken to administrative court, which often takes about three weeks, Sadowski says, and Illinois courts have trouble enforcing orders against owners who live out of state. Illinois Times’ analysis shows at least 44 of the 136 currently active permits were issued to individuals or organizations outside Illinois. Twenty-three permits were issued to individuals or organizations with Illinois addresses outside Springfield.

Sadowski says the current system of regulating vacant properties works, but he wishes his division had more time and resources to spend on enforcement.
“This is just one of many things we do,” he says, adding that he is familiar with the push for changes in city ordinances on code enforcement, such as limiting the time a building can stay vacant or raising permit fees.

“If you raise the fees, it could be harder for us to collect them,” Sadowski says. “On the other hand, it would probably discourage people from keeping buildings in their current condition. If it costs a lot of money to keep registered, they may be more likely to tear it down or fix it.”

Go to  http://www.batchgeo.com for a detailed map of vacant houses in Springfield.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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