Maggie Ausmer lives across the street from something she’d rather not see.
It’s the vacant Franklin Apartments building at 4 N. 96th St. in Belleville, where city employees recently boarded up the front door. Ausmer said one tenant had been in the building but that woman left about nine months ago.
“Nobody wants to live next door to abandoned buildings,” Ausmer said.
This two-story, brick apartment building is the vacant property that Ward 4 Alderman Raffi Ovian said he would select to be included in a proposed plan to crack down on derelict vacant buildings. The goal of the program would be to get property owners to fix buildings so people can move back into them. If the buildings are not renovated, the structures could be demolished.
The proposal calls for a pilot program in which aldermen select two vacant properties in each of the city’s eight wards. Then, the housing department would check out the 16 buildings to determine if the property owner needs to register the building, pay an inspection fee, post a cash bond of up to $25,000 and submit a plan to either make repairs or demolish the building. A first offense violation of the vacant building program could cost $250 for each day the property is in violation and $500 a day for second and subsequent violations.
The City Council’s Public Health and Housing Committee has approved a 16-page ordinance to amend the city’s property maintenance code and the Ordinance and Legal Review Committee is expected to vote on it next month when it could go before the full council.
“We’ve got to stop the flight of people leaving our city, that’s the goal,” said Ovian, who has spearheaded the vacant building proposal in the Public Health and Housing Committee.
“We’re trying to bring back neighborhoods in order for people to feel more at home and to want to live in their homes and basically update them as well,” Ovian said. “When something like this, the Franklin Apartments, becomes vacant, it becomes an eyesore for everyone living here and it decreases the value of the property.”
Ovian said if the new owners of the Franklin Apartments renovate the site, he would find another property to refer to the housing department.
Ovian noted that U.S. Census Bureau estimates show Belleville’s population has decreased 6 percent since 2010 and this drop from 44,478 to an estimated 41,649 last year has made a dent in the amount of state aid that is sent to the city based on the city’s population size.
Based on an estimate from the Illinois Municipal League about how much money a city can expect to receive from the state, Ovian believes that because of this population loss, the city has lost an average of $138,000 in state funding annually between 2010 and 2016.
A ‘broken window’ policy
The proposed vacant building ordinance calls for the City Council to adopt the “broken window” concept of “one broken window, left unrepaired, leads to more broken windows as the appearance is given that no one cares or protects the property; that the building becomes increasingly more deteriorated, and that the deterioration may have a ripple effect.”
The ordinance describes the city’s goal of stopping the spread of boarded up and abandoned buildings.
Buildings that are indefinitely vacant, or vacant and in a state of disrepair, or boarded up “contribute to a decrease in surrounding property values, discourage investment in neighboring properties, provide a location for criminal activity, undermine the aesthetic character of the neighborhood and city and have other deleterious effects,” the proposal states.
Vacant home exemptions
City Attorney Garrett Hoerner told members of the Public Health and Housing Committee this month that the proposed ordinance only targets the sites selected by aldermen and then examined by housing inspectors.
“The most derelict properties would fall under this,” Hoerner said. “The whole concept behind this is compliance.”
The plan has exemptions for following types of vacant homes or buildings:
▪ Buildings in which the owners are actively trying to sell or rent.
▪ Buildings that are under construction or renovation.
▪ Homes unoccupied on a seasonal basis.
▪ Buildings that are subject to probate.
▪ Buildings subject to governmental action to determine their suitability for reoccupancy or rehabilitation.
Mayor Mark Eckert told the housing committee earlier this year that the proposed ordinance needs to have an exemption for families dealing with a home in probate.
For example, he noted that it took almost two years from the time his mother died to when her home was sold.
“My mother’s house never once caused any neighbor’s home to lose property value,” Eckert said. “It was always well cared for until the day we sold it.”
Definitions of vacant
Homes and buildings that would be selected to be in the vacant building program would be ones that are not already on the housing department’s radar.
Bob Sabo, director of the city’s health, housing and building department, said his department has about 40 buildings facing condemnation orders.
If the new program is approved by the City Council, it would be overseen by current employees.
The proposed ordinance includes several ways to define a vacant building, including the following:
▪ The building is unsecured, boarded up or is dangerous to the health, safety and welfare of firefighters, police officers and neighbors.
▪ The building has multiple code violations or has been the site of criminal activity.
▪ The structure has been condemned by the housing department or unlawfully occupied.
“We certainly need to continue to be very, very strong and concerned about the derelict properties that are bringing down property values,” Eckert said.
Franklin Apartments future
Although Ovian recently had to get city employees to board up the front door of the Franklin Apartments because it was “wide open,” he still sees “plenty of potential” for the building on North 96th Street.
And so does Karl Gilpin, president of Tygracon Properties Inc. of Columbia.
Gilpin said his company bought the Franklin Apartments on April 30, which was after the front door had been boarded up. Tygracon now expects to spend $100,000 to $125,000 to renovate the vacant building and get new tenants within 90 to 120 days.
If Tygracon’s plans proceed as announced, Ovian said he will be glad to find another vacant property to refer to the city’s housing department for the vacant building registry program.
Gilpin said he agrees with Ovian that “you’ve got to start going after these landlords.”
Tygracon’s investment in the Franklin Apartments is expected keep the building from being considered for the vacant building registry program, Gilpin said.
St. Clair County tax records show the latest property tax bill of about $3,000 for the Franklin Apartments was sent to Rentco Properties LLC of Alton. The agent for this company is Mike McElroy, according the Illinois Secretary of State, and that the status of the company was listed as “involuntary dissolution” occurring on June 8.
McElroy could not be reached for comment.
Gilpin said the Franklin Apartments roof has already been replaced and some interior work has started. He said there will be four units and each one will have two bedrooms and one bath. The sunrooms on each side of the building will be converted to living space and hardwood floors will be refinished.
“I love old brick buildings that are in great shape,” said Gilpin, who earlier this year announced a $1.5 million plan to buy and renovate a downtown Belleville building at 300 E. Main St. and convert the space into “high-end” apartments.
Gilpin said he hopes his company’s investments help “turn the tide on people leaving the area” and encourage people to move to Belleville.
Gilpin praised the North 96th Street residents who have maintained their property.
“That helps us to make the decision to go ahead and invest in that neighborhood,” he said.
Ovian’s ward is on the city’s west side and includes the Franklin Apartments.
“It’s a beautiful structure,” Ovian said. “Before it becomes further deteriorated, if it was basically brought up to code, then it would be habitable and people could live in it once again.”