DANVILLE — When Katherine Lee has visitors to her house, she closes the blinds in her dining room to hide the view of the dilapidated house next door.
"It's embarrassing," said Lee, who lives on Kentucky Street in Danville next to a two-story house that has been vacant for several years.
Besides being an eyesore, the vine-covered house has broken windows and holes in the failing roof that allow animals and moisture to get inside. Lee has seen raccoons and other vermin coming and going. She worries about the house catching fire, putting hers at risk, and worries about the negative impact on her property's value.
Lee wants the house demolished, and she is not alone. Other property owners in the city live next door to dilapidated, abandoned houses.
According to Chris Milliken, planning and zoning manager for the city, there are about 197 residential structures in Danville that meet the city's definition of "vacant" in its ordinances. To meet the definition of vacant, a property must be unoccupied and unsecured, secured in an unacceptable way, determined unsafe by an enforcement officer, or in violation of city codes.
There are up to 600 unoccupied residential structures in the city, according to Milliken, which also includes multifamily structures, but only 197 meet the definition of "vacant" in the city's vacant structure ordinance, and it's those types of properties that the city targets for demolition when there's no other alternative.
Last month, the city earmarked $200,000 of federal Community Development Block Grant money per year for the next three years for demolitions to eliminate properties like the one next to Lee's residence.
The city has demolished dilapidated buildings, residential and commercial, every year of the last 10 years, more in some years than others.
In 2003, only 15 were demolished. In 2005, more than 30. And in 2007, the city spent about $2 million of a $4 million bond issue to tear down more than 100.
But there are still plenty of properties beyond salvaging that are eyesores and threats to public health and security, as indicated by the 197 that meet the city definition of vacant.
Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said that several years ago, the frustration was doing a small number of demolitions per year and finding the next year that there were that many new structures that could be considered for demolition.
"We weren't making any gain on the problem," he said.
The 2007 bond issue provided the money to do a larger number, and earmarking $600,000 in federal grant money over three years will "certainly help us in getting ahead of the game," Eisenhauer said.
But, he explained, it's not just about tearing down structures.
Two things the city needs to do is be more aggressive in code enforcement to keep properties from getting beyond the point of saving and develop a roof replacement assistance program.
"The fastest way to a dilapidated property is roof failure, and if property owners can't do that, we will lose that structure," said Eisenhauer, adding that city officials have tossed around ideas for establishing such a program and now are trying to earmark funding for it and establish qualifications for participation.
The city does use some of its annual block grant funding to rehabilitate properties owned by low-income residents, and those projects sometimes includes new roofs. But those funds serve less than 20 properties a year.
Lee said the property next door to hers was a beautiful house a little more than 10 years ago. And even in the first few years of it sitting vacant, she said it was just messy. But now that the roof is failing, it's letting in the rain and animals. And the roof over the garage is collapsing.
The city has pursued demolition, even posting a sign warning of demolition about three years ago, but city officials hit snags in the long, sometimes complicated legal process leading up to the city getting the right to demolish a structure.
David Wesner, corporation counsel for the city, said the city has completed the legal process and is clear to demolish the house, but Ameren cannot cut power to the house, because the bill is still in the property owner's name and is still being paid. Wesner said the property owners are also paying the property taxes. He said this property is an example of how the city can go through its legal process but still run into problems that halt demolition. He said although the city has legal authority to tear down the structure, the city does not own the property, so it cannot force Ameren to cut the utilities.
Wesner said he understands the frustration of neighbors, because it appears to them nothing is being done, when in reality, the city is doing all it can.
"We realize the impact it has on a neighborhood," he said of a dilapidated property.
Wesner said the property owners, whose current address is in Rossville, have been notified of the city's intent to demolish the structure, and the city has had no correspondence back from them.
Since the city can't move forward with demolition, Wesner said, the next step with this property is for his office to coordinate with the inspection department and bring the city inspectors back into the situation, so they can start issuing letters to the owners in regard to code violations that exist at the property.
But, Wesner said, this property is a good example of property owners who don't want contact and don't want to meet and discuss the situation, whether it's determining a plan to rehab the property or tear it down.
"It's very, very difficult to force someone to even just make a call or sit down with us and have a meeting," he said.
In ward meetings around the city last month, code enforcement and demolitions were topics brought up by residents. Some people want more code enforcement, or at least code violations resolved more quickly. But there was also criticism of the city demolishing structures rather than trying to preserve them. City officials heard similar criticism prior to approving the 2007 bond issue that earmarked money for demolitions.
Public Works Director Doug Ahrens said the properties being demolished by the city are beyond salvaging. He said they are so dilapidated that no one would invest the amount of money it would take to save them. And Ahrens said that's where city administration hopes that a more aggressive approach to code enforcement beginning this year will keep properties from getting to that point. The new approach includes more frequent visits to problem properties by code enforcement officials as well as training other city workers to be on the lookout for code violations.
But Ahrens said the city also needs some redevelopment in the city, people investing in properties to keep them from becoming dilapidated.
Eisenhauer said all the city can do is try to find ways to encourage that redevelopment.
One of the purposes of the city establishing its vacant-building ordinance a few years ago wasn't just to protect the public from problem properties but was also to "speed the rehabilitation of vacant structures," according to the ordinance.
The owner of a structure that meets the definition of vacant must do one of three things or suffer fines:
— Have a plan for demolition.
— Have a plan for rehabilitation.
— Or, if it's to remain vacant, provide a plan to secure it and provide a statement saying why it will continue to be vacant.
Lee continues to hope the house next to hers is demolished soon. The eyesore isn't as bad in the summer, she said, because the leaves come in on the vines that cover most of the house on her side of the property, and the overgrown tree in the front yard fills in, blocking some of the view from the street.
"So when I'm out on the front porch in the summer, it doesn't look quite as bad ...," she said. "It's like a big chia pet."
Demolitions by the numbers
The city of Danville has spent nearly $2.6 million to demolish 225 vacant residential and commercial structures since 2005. The following shows the number of demolitions done each year — either in-house by public works staff or through contractors — and the total cost of those demolitions.