Landlord will fight Urbana lawsuit
URBANA — City officials' dogged pursuit of a southeast Urbana landlord will enter a Champaign County courtroom next month after they brought legal action against him.
Urbana officials are looking to collect $10,785 in fines on each of three buildings under the watch of landlord Paul Zerrouki and his Platinum Group Properties after they say he has taken too long to fix structural defects to walkways, balconies and stairways at 1302, 1304 and 1401 Silver Street. The two parties are due in court July 10.
Those buildings for years have drawn the ire of city officials and nearby residents. They say the three apartment buildings are an eyesore, a harbor for criminal activity and are drawing down surrounding property values.
A city official declined to comment on the lawsuit, as is the city's policy in matters of pending litigation, but Zerrouki said this week that he feels the city is being unreasonable in its demands. He plans to fight the city's claim in court.
"I'm trying to do my job like every businessman," Zerrouki said.
The buildings were closed on an emergency basis and residents of 19 units were moved out immediately in late February and early March 2013 after city inspectors said the exterior balconies and stairwells were unsafe. In the months following, Zerrouki commenced work by tearing the structures out but has not yet replaced them. As a result, the buildings are still unlivable and empty.
When inspectors noted that workers had made no progress in six months since the work stopped, they revoked the landlord's building permit and sued.
But Zerrouki said he's still making progress and wants another couple months. He said he has structural engineer Rex Bradfield — who challenged Mayor Laurel Prussing in the last election and also happens to live just a few blocks away — on the job and building plans ready to go.
"It just takes time," Zerrouki said. "We went through a long winter."
City officials, particularly Prussing and Alderwoman Diane Marlin, D-Ward 7, have not been shy in saying they believe Platinum Group Properties' buildings are causing problems in southeast Urbana. Prussing told a southeast Urbana neighborhood association last month that the city is continuing its work to eliminate the problem — but she asked neighbors to be patient through lengthy legal processes.
Zerrouki said, however, that any claims that he has not made progress on his buildings are "not true" and "absolutely misleading." He said he feels targeted while other problem properties seem to go unchecked.
"It feels like I live in a communist country," Zerrouki said. "I don't know what to do."
Long-time resident and neighborhood association member Kathy Wallig said neighbors are frustrated — both by the blight and the drawn-out city strategy — and hope the apartments are taken care of soon.
"I wouldn't want to live across the street and have to look at that every day," Wallig said. "I know a lot of people have to drive by that every day. It's time. It's time for him to clean up his act."
A few years ago, rising crime rates and property maintenance issues began drawing concern in southeast Urbana. That's when police and building inspectors began working with Zerrouki on his buildings.
"There have been property owners who have been very diligent trying to maintain the properties and rent their units to responsible individuals," Wallig said. "But as his buildings continue to deteriorate, that means the property values for everything around him have dropped."
Word is getting out about the Platinum Group Properties complexes, she said. Zerrouki owns several other properties in both Champaign and Urbana, and they too are often the source of city officials' or tenants' complaints.
"If you're living next to a Zerrouki property, you've got an eyesore," Wallig said.
She added that, given Urbana's developing property tax issues, that's not something the city can afford.
"It's hitting Urbana in the pocketbook not only because of all the staff time they spend on him," Wallig said. "The Silver Street properties have brought down the real estate values of everything around there, and Urbana can't afford to lose any more real estate taxes."
City officials were successful in their attempts to remedy another blighted apartment complex in a different part of the city. Within the past few years, city officials condemned, took ownership of and demolished the Urbana Townhomes — formerly Woodstone Apartments — complex on Lierman Avenue.
Wallig said the situation in southeast Urbana appears to be a repeat of that, but she wishes it could be solved more quickly.
"It's the same routine that the Woodstone Apartments have gone through, and (Prussing is) very locked in on that," Wallig said. "I think that if people in the city were more creative or had the freedom to be more creative, I think there's more than one solution."