URBANA — Orange city notices telling people to stay out went up on a cluster of apartment buildings in southeast Urbana within the past week, but the owner says the non-occupancy notices will only remain while he remodels the apartments inside.
City officials, though, are taking a harder line with the apartment owner whose troubled buildings dot the area and who has outstanding fines for code violations.
"When you have a building that's unoccupiable and vacant, that's not a good thing," Community Development Director Libby Tyler said.
The buildings owned by Colorado Place LLC at 905, 1001 and 1003 E. Colorado Ave. were unoccupied to begin with. Manager Paul Zerrouki said all they need are new appliances, new carpet and a fresh coat of paint.
"The apartments inside, they need to be remodeled," Zerrouki said. "That's all it is."
He said the non-occupancy notices are a normal part of that process and will come down when he is finished.
There are 36 units in those three buildings that are "not suited for occupancy" and not up to all maintenance codes, Tyler said.
Zerrouki was involved in a much more urgent situation in February, when city officials required an emergency location of his tenants of 19 units in buildings at 1302, 1304 and 1401 Silver Street. A structural engineer had determined that walkways and stairways on the exterior of the buildings had deteriorated to a point where they were unsafe.
Zerrouki has since removed those unsafe structures and has received a permit to rebuild them. The city is reviewing his plans, which have already been revised once after the building required "more extensive removal than anticipated," Tyler said.
Theresa Michelson lives on Silver Street and said she is "just as confused as the next person."
"I sort of don't know what to say," Michelson said. "There just seems to be a pattern here."
She has watched how the city has handled her area's apartment properties but said she is not sure what to think of it.
"I wish it would go faster," Michelson said. "Maybe they will because now it just seems so glaring."
Code enforcement activity on Zerrouki's properties has been high. Tyler said the city has issued 46 abatement notices, and officials have documented 1,067 code violations.
Zerrouki has received 16 tickets for non-compliance — that totaled $2,400 in fines.
Tyler said as of Thursday afternoon, he had paid $400 worth of those fines. He is overdue on $1,800, and a $200 fine is due Friday.
Zerrouki has two misdemeanor counts of criminal housing management pending against him for allegedly endangering tenants on Jan. 17 at his apartment building at 2018 Fletcher Street and on Jan. 22 at 1302 Silver Street by ordering or permitting smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers to be removed.
Prosecutors allege he shuffled the fire equipment from building to building in an attempt to fool city inspectors. He next appears in court on Sept. 6.
Tyler said the vacant apartments in the 900 and 1000 block of East Colorado Avenue will need to be registered on the city's vacant buildings list. Owners of buildings on that list must submit a plan of how they intend to get them up to code and reoccupied.
"That's what lies ahead, but this was a first step," Tyler said, although she added that the process sometimes ends in demolition.
Zerrouki said he feels targeted by the city and is miffed by how inspectors have treated him.
The inspector "comes every week violating my rights without a notice," Zerrouki said.
Zerrouki also said that he has done everything the city has asked of him.
"I do the job and comply, and they fine me anyway," Zerrouki said.