Housing cop catches violations
The night before Thanksgiving, I accompanied my neighbor Connie to a meeting of the Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission.
The city had gone ga-ga over her backyard fence, which was built years ago. Either someone had complained that it was too big or building inspectors cracked the case on their own, which we figured more likely, given that a citation arrived after someone from the city came to look at Connie’s new garage, for which she had gotten a building permit. She follows the law, you see.
Connie has the best-looking house on the block. The city acted as if she were on trial. She paid a couple hundred bucks to go through a variance process, then spent an hour or so at one of the most maddening public hearings I’ve ever attended.
After deciding that a nonconforming gun store should stay in a residential neighborhood – this was the shop where burglars in 2016 made off with more than 50 guns in a heist that wasn’t discovered until morning – commissioners made Connie raise her hand and swear to tell the truth. They wouldn’t believe what she and I and another neighbor said under oath: The fence isn’t a problem. They made Connie come back in a month, at which time a commissioner who’d gone and looked at the fence confirmed we hadn’t lied: The fence is fine. Nonetheless, commissioners decreed that Connie must modify a corner, which is better than tearing it down. Call it the city’s pound of flesh.
I couldn’t help thinking about the fence when I heard about Michael Gant, a city housing inspector since 1999. He’s seen a lot of houses. And he knows how to pick ’em.
Gant isn’t just an inspector, he’s also a landlord, having amassed a portfolio of nine rental properties that is impressive for all the wrong reasons. Since 2004, he’s received more than 100 citations for offenses ranging from no garbage service to not having smoke detectors to allowing a garage to crumble to the point that the city declared the building dangerous and hauled him to court. How many property owners get cited for excessive dog feces in a yard? I’d never heard of one until I saw the stack of tickets Gant has racked up. There’s no sign that he’s ever been fined.
Fourteen times, city records show, Gant has inspected his own property, most recently last year, after someone called the city about tall weeds and garbage piling up outside a house on East Adams Street. Not true, Gant insists. “That’s impossible,” Gant tells me. “They wouldn’t allow me to inspect my own property.” So a notation reading “Abated, fixed it myself, close file per MG” next to “Inspected by Michael Gant” in a 2010 complaint file must be a typo. In that case, someone had complained that an overhang on one of Gant’s houses looked as if it was about to collapse.
Public works director Mark Mahoney confirms via email that inspectors aren’t supposed to inspect their own property, but he didn't dispute that it has happened in the past. In the case of the Adams Street home that records show Gant inspected last year despite being the property owner, Mahoney says the city caught the problem and sent out a different inspector. Mahoney acknowledges other issues. For instance, Gant still doesn’t have a final occupancy certificate for a house on South 10th Street after receiving a temporary one in the summer of 2017. Issues included electrical problems. Mahoney writes that an inspection should have been accomplished by now so that a final occupancy certificate can be issued. He blames a staff shortage.
Slumlord is a loaded term, so let’s just say that Gant is a misunderstood entrepreneur who has paid, Sangamon County property records show, a collective $61,000 for his nine houses, most east of 11th Street. Gant also lives on the east side, in Knoll Pointe. His house, the county figures, is worth nearly $140,000 – it was brand-new when he bought it, complete with two-car garage and columns framing a front entrance dominated by an arched glass window – a case of Tara meets McMansion, if you will.
Gant says he’d live in any of his houses, and none of the violations are major, including pending tickets for a house in the 2000 block of East Capitol Avenue, where the city last year found 13 issues, including a deteriorated joist, missing siding, loose brick and mortar at a basement hatchway, cracked and loose plaster in a living room and a roof with “severely deteriorated” shingles. Gant says he doesn’t deserve the roof ticket. “If you go around Springfield, you’ll see a lot of roofs that look worse than mine,” he says. “You can’t make a person repair or replace a roof if it’s not leaking.”
Gant blames tenants for failures to have garbage service – yes, that’s the property owner’s responsibility under city code, but Gant says he trusts tenants to get trash picked up. If anything, Gant says, the city is tougher on him than others. “I probably get treated worse than anyone else out there,” Gant says. “They always say they hold me to a higher standard.”
Perhaps. But when I think about the fence next door at the nicest house on the block, I wonder.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.