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Thursday, March 3, 2011 12:25 pm

Houston calls for better enforcement on blight

Mayoral candidate vows to address vacant properties

Mike Houston
Springfield has too many abandoned buildings, according to mayoral candidate Mike Houston, but he says he has a plan    

Standing in front of the dilapidated, boarded-up house at 826 N. Fourth St., Houston told reporters on Feb. 24 that he will attack Springfield’s problem of abandoned properties if elected mayor. The frontrunner in the Feb. 22 primary election with 32 percent of the vote, Houston wants the city to confiscate abandoned buildings whose owners “flagrantly” ignore city ordinances regarding vacant properties.

Currently, the city requires owners of vacant buildings to register those properties with the city’s Building and Zoning Division and purchase a vacant building permit. New permits cost $100 and last six months, while renewed permits cost $250 and last three months. Many boarded properties stay vacant for years, Houston says.

The house at 826 N. Fourth St. does not have a vacant building permit, according to a representative of the Building and Zoning Division, though it had been cited for code violations as early as 2007, Houston says.

Illinois Times reported in July 2010 that many boarded buildings are not registered, and the city says it lacks the resources to enforce the ordinance. [See “Boarded properties flying under city’s radar,” by Patrick Yeagle, July 29, 2010, at www.illinoistimes.com.]

Houston says part of the problem in the Enos Park neighborhood, where 826 N. Fourth St. is located, is that many property owners within the Mid-Illinois Medical District are holding onto boarded properties because they mistakenly expect to make a profit if those properties are sold to hospitals.

“People don’t understand that those properties will never be zoned commercial,” he says.

Houston points to the work of the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association in rehabilitating abandoned properties.

“These properties are owner-occupied homes where the owners have made extensive investments of money, time and sweat to rehabilitate older structures into high-quality housing that anyone would be proud to live in,” Houston says, motioning toward restored houses down the street. “How can you expect people to make these types of investments when you have abandoned properties all over the neighborhood?”

Houston says the city isn’t doing its part to remedy the problem, particularly with regard to the house standing vacant and crumbling behind him.

“It is apparent that the City of Springfield needs to put more resources into the enforcement process to eliminate structures like this, as well as the building across the street and to the immediate south,” Houston says.

His plan involves hiring two city attorneys who would work solely on holding property owners responsible for abandoned buildings. The fee revenue brought in by those attorneys would be more than enough to make up for their salaries, Houston claims, saying there could be as many as 800 boarded properties in Springfield for which fines should be collected.

Under Houston’s plan, the city would put liens on property whose owners accumulate $2,000 or more in unpaid fines. Property owners would have an opportunity to pay the fines and submit a plan to remedy code violations, but the city would foreclose on properties whose owners don’t cooperate. The fines could come from the registration fee, bills from the city for mowing unkempt properties or a variety of code violations.

Buildings that can be renovated would be turned over to private developers or local non-profits that rehabilitate properties for the cost of a single dollar. Houston says he would also require a timeline for renovations be put in place to ensure specific progress. The city’s vacant property permit application already requires property owners to identify a schedule for completing repairs as part of a vacant building plan, but the plans do not seem to be enforced regularly.

“Letting these types of properties continue to have a negative impact on the neighborhood is simply unacceptable,” Houston says. “As mayor, I will take back our neighborhoods one abandoned property at a time.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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