Living in a 'no man's land'

Living in a 'no man's land'

URBANA — When she recalls years gone by in her longtime neighborhood, Yvonne Sadler describes a nice place to have raised her family.

These days, she looks around this "old Scottswood" area at the east edge of Urbana with dismay.

"This used to be such a nice neighborhood," Sadler said, wistfully.

Amid many tidy, well-kept homes such as hers, blights have developed on some of the properties — among them a handful of dilapidated houses, some that were burned in fires, with tall weeds and inoperable cars and debris piled outside.

Inside the detached garage at one vacant house are old mattresses — Sadler counted a dozen of them — and a mound of garbage bags, including some that Sadler said contain food waste.

Down the street from her own home on East Illinois Street, Sadler said, the multiple cars out front, along with a full-sized bus stuffed with unidentified items, have been there for years.

She and her late husband moved into this neighborhood about 45 years ago and raised six kids there, Sadler said, but she wouldn't want to sell her house to a family now.

"If I was selling my house, I would not want anybody with children to buy it," she said. "It's not fair to anybody."

What Sadler refers to as the "old Scotts-wood" neighborhood is the area generally bordered by Washington Street, South Dodson Drive, Main Street and Scotts-wood Drive.

Many of the houses in this area would be viewed from the outside as nice places to live, but Sadler and some of her neighbors say they've noticed a gradual neighborhood decline, the worst of which began 10 to 15 years ago.

They've picked up trash at other houses — both to set a good example, and so they wouldn't have to look at it, Sadler said. Some neighbors have gone so far as to mow other people's yards that were going unattended.

They've also complained about these issues to the county — and have grown frustrated waiting for action, they said.

A newer resident in this neighborhood, Michael Van Pelt, said he picked up accumulated trash outside a neighbor's house and footed the cost of hauling it away and disposing of it.

He and his wife had planned to do some remodeling and add a sunroom at their home on East Green Street, purchased just a few months ago, but are now rethinking investing any money in this neighborhood, he said.

"I'm beginning to think I made a mistake," Van Pelt said.

The city of Urbana wouldn't allow such property issues to go unenforced, he contended. But most of this area is outside city limits, and he and his neighbors are dealing with a cash-strapped Champaign County.

"We're out here in no man's land," Van Pelt said.

 

Complaint backlog

Champaign County's Planning and Zoning Department had a countywide backlog of 343 unresolved complaints, as of this past August.

"We get so many valid complaints, we can't keep up with them," said John Hall, who heads the county's Planning and Zoning Department.

While the complaints are scattered around the county, Hall said some of the issues in Sadler's neighborhood may be arising from population density, smaller lots and some lower-income residents unable to afford garbage pick-up.

When money is tight for people, he said, "that's the easiest thing to let go."

Hall said the county lacks the money to step up nuisance complaint enforcement, and he doesn't blame Sadler for growing frustrated.

"We're living with a backlog of enforcement issues from the Great Recession," he added.

Jamie Hitt, the county's zoning officer, said she's the only county staff person handling complaints such as those in old Scottswood in a nearly 1,000-square-mile county.

Along with the unincorporated areas, the county also handles zoning administration for several towns, including Foos-land, Seymour, Penfield and Dewey, she said.

Her work is complaint-driven. She'll go out and inspect properties for which she has received complaints, but doesn't have time to troll neighborhoods for violations people haven't reported.

Getting property owners to take care of nuisance issues is often a time-consuming process, further stalled by tracking down and making contact with the owners, Hitt said.

When these cases end up in court, she said, they're subject to further delays as property owners receive extensions to fix the problems.

The county board has set her department's highest enforcement priority as dealing with unsafe structures, Hitt said, with inoperable vehicles and accumulated trash issues lower on the list.

At least one case involving a fire-damaged house at 504 S. Dodson Drive is in the process of being addressed. The county has put a fence around it, and is seeking bids on the demolition. But with winter coming up, the successful bidder will likely have until late May next year to get the job done, Hitt said.

The best advice she can give frustrated property owners in neighborhoods with property blights is to report the problem — along with the address of the property — to her office, and then be patient.

Still, she said, "our office has no money. We're going to have to go beg for money to go tear down this house at 504 Dodson."

 

Changing dynamics

Betty Rowell said she did her homework before she bought her own home in old Scottswood — on South Dodson Drive — 15 years ago, and was told by neighbors that it was a quiet, stable neighborhood.

"But that dynamic has changed," she contended.

She now sees a neighborhood with more rental homes, "and landlords that don't live in the neighborhood — but are more than happy to rent to people who don't know how to maintain a property," she said.

Rowell, who lives next door to a vacant house where there are piles of garbage bags in the garage and tall overgrowth out back, said she has to pay a pest control service to put a granular barrier around her own house to prevent what she fears would be pests making their way over.

She has called the sheriff's office many times to report suspicious activities and has further made nuisance complaints to the planning and zoning office, Rowell said.

She said Hitt has been kind, "but she is responsible for all of the county."

Meanwhile, violations continue, Rowell said.

"They know nothing's going to be done," she said of violators. "There are no consequences. The reality is, could that much debris have occurred if it was being monitored on a regular basis?"

Sadler has further concerns about crime picking up in the area. She once saw a man walking down the street with a bat and thought, "Oh, isn't that nice, he's going to play baseball," only to learn later that he had walked around the corner and beat someone up with it, she said.

Van Pelt recounted one recent episode in which people at a rental house across the street from his home aimed pellet guns from their porch and shot out the windows of an abandoned vehicle out front.

He has worked all his life and is buying his house from a friend who gave him a deal on it, he said.

He keeps his yard mowed, raked and fertilized, he said, but now wonders, "as a homeowner, how would I ever sell my house?"

Frances McCracken, who moved into her home on South Glenn Drive in 1963 and raised seven children there, also describes a neighborhood that has changed and some issues hitting her close to home.

One of the fires in the neighborhood occurred near her own home, she said. Cars on her street have been broken into, and "we have three inoperable vehicles on our block," she said.

At 76, she's one of the many older women living in this neighborhood, McCracken said. And she can't afford to move.

"I'm stuck here," she said.

 

Recession effect

Champaign County Administrator Rick Snider said the county's planning and zoning department has always been understaffed. But that has been aggravated in recent years by more work resulting from unfunded state and federal mandates.

Plus, he said, "we've really never recovered from the Great Recession."

Some additional resources for planning and zoning have been proposed for next year, Snider said, but that's dependent on how other county budget issues play out. Continued subsidies to bail out the county-owned nursing home could result in layoffs and service cuts for next year, county officials have said.

In contrast to one person handling property nuisances at the county level, the city of Champaign's Neighborhood Service Department has five property maintenance inspectors covering just the city alone.

Just under half their work is driven by nuisance complaints, and the other half is generated by the inspectors doing sweeps of neighborhoods in their areas, according to the city's Code Compliance Manager, David Oliver.

Any neighborhood can be subject to cases of property neglect, he said. But the city's policy is to work complaints in three days and do its best to keep complaint issues from persisting.

The city will grant some extensions in hardship cases, Oliver said, but generally nuisance violations must be abated within 10 days unless they're beyond an owner's ability to resolve that quickly. If the problems aren't abated, he said, the city hires a contractor to do the job and sends the owner a bill along with a $100 fee. If the bill isn't paid in 30 days and a lien must be placed on the property, the bill grows by another $48, he said.

Within Urbana's city limits, there's one environmental compliance officer handling nuisance complaints such as accumulating weeds and trash on properties, along with two employees systematically inspecting some 9,600 rental properties within city limits, according to the city's Community Development Manager, John Schneider.

Enforcement is handled similarly to the process used in Champaign, in which property owners are notified, given seven days to take care of issues, and if they don't, the city hires out the work, bills the owners and tries to collect.

 

'It's pretty sad'

Sadler and McCracken recalled efforts by Urbana to annex their neighborhood decades ago. Residents resisted at the time because their taxes would have gone up, they said.

"We were selfish and very foolish," Sadler said.

A county board member who represents this neighborhood, Aaron Esry of St. Joseph, replied last month to a complaint letter from Sadler — complete with pictures of problem properties — that sought his help.

"We, as a county, know that there are problems in Scottswood (as well as other areas) with rundown properties, trash, abandoned cars, etc.," he wrote in response. "The Planning and Zoning Dept., I know, would like to be able to do more enforcement of the already existing ordinances, but is stretched thin with man hours to do so."

Esry told The News-Gazette the county is doing what it can with its available resources.

"Money's the big thing, and the county, of course, isn't flush with cash, as I think most people know at this point in time," he said.

Esry also said he has seen some of the properties people are complaining about.

"For somebody who has to live next to them, it's pretty sad, actually," he said.

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rsp wrote on November 12, 2017 at 10:11 am

The county board has set her department's highest enforcement priority as dealing with unsafe structures, Hitt said, with inoperable vehicles and accumulated trash issues lower on the list.

Once again it's the county board. I guess the risk of rats are not considered "unsafe". Here's a suggestion. Have the fire department go through the area and do a sweep with checklists and cameras and identify problem properties. Have the other county officials step up and assist with identifying the owners. You know, the reords departments?

Someone look for grant money to start clearing any houses that need to go. Bring in Habitat to rebuild them, or maybe leave some space for a park. There is no park for the kids. I heard a rumor once about them being promised a park over there for the taxes they pay but it never happened.

Urbana should really think about taking this area over. What happens there spills out into their neighbors' homes. It's not fair. It's not fair to any of them. There are people willing to invest in this area and change it but they need outside help. Where is it?

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on November 13, 2017 at 8:11 am
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What's this "fire department" you speak of? The county has no fire department.

Of course, there's the Edge-Scott Fire Protection district, located just inside Edgewood (nice) and across University Avenue from Scottswood (dreadful). But it's staffed only by volunteers. They don't really have the authority to enforce code violations.

rsp wrote on November 13, 2017 at 9:11 am

Edge-Scott is made up of volunteers. Some of those volunteers are paid firemen with city departments. They can inspect and do reports and assist, take photos. Document things. It is not unheard of for an area to bring in outside assistance, outside experts, to get information. They are qualified to do that. It would still be up to the Zoning office to file everything.

And just think how much time it would save her.

You may think Scottswood is dreadful but I have a son living there, grandchildren living there. I have spent countless hours there. The people aren't "dreadful". They are being abandoned by local government just like Champaign did with the Bristol neighborhood for years.

I remember when there were police officers who wouldn't go into Bristol at night. I know both areas well and Scottswood isn't even close to that. But when you see garbage sit for years it tells you nobody cares, and when you think nobody cares it just becomes a downward spiral.

metalmomof4 wrote on November 12, 2017 at 10:11 am

Maybe if the county went through the tax records and takes the homeowners exemption away from landlords who don"t live in the property there would be money to fix the neighborhood.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on November 13, 2017 at 8:11 am
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This is a great point. There are hundreds if not thousands of "homeowner-occupied" exemptions currently applied to rental properties in the area.

rsp wrote on November 13, 2017 at 9:11 am

There are vacant houses getting exemptions. Even after reporting them it goes nowhere.

787 wrote on November 12, 2017 at 2:11 pm

The County Board democrats need to show some concern towards issues like this. 

Maybe they can just eliminate the position of the one remaining person, and throw that money at the Nursing Home instead.  That one employee is fighting an uphill battle anyway.  Just give up.   To the democrats, it is all about the Nursing Home right now

rsp wrote on November 12, 2017 at 5:11 pm

Or they can reduce the money for the new county executive. Over $100,000 when they could have started at $70,000. Where is this money coming from? It was the republicans who pushed for the higher pay. Maybe they could refinance some of the debts for a lower rate? No, republicans don't want to do that. It's leverage.

See? We can all play this game. Playing games is why we are in this mess.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on November 13, 2017 at 8:11 am
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It's amusing to think the Democratic Party is responsible for the blight caused by "small government" and tax avoidance.

CommonSenseless wrote on November 13, 2017 at 2:11 pm

It's not amusing if you consider how many dollars are wasted on the liberal agenda in general.  If government spending was reduced to its necessary and constitutionally mandated functions, the current tax revenue could eliminate debt inside 50 years.  Much sooner for local levels.

rsp wrote on November 13, 2017 at 2:11 pm

You understand the county government is required to maintain the buildings they own, right? Like the Brookings building? It needs a new roof. The jail needs work that is required by law. The jail has walls that need to be stabilized. The jail is not up to code as far as being handicap accessible in violation of the law. A million dollars is spent to house prisoners in other counties because the local jail cannot hold them. There is no money.

You want to just talk about constitutionally mandated functions. Those costs will continue to go up just for the sole reason that they are being put of for years. Not months, Not until the nursing home is sold, but just put off because some people would rather starve the county to death than have it function. They refuse to refinance debts that we are paying credit-card rates on to get a better rate because it's just one more thing to fight over.

I have no idea who they think they are representing but it isn't the taxpayers.

auntsonyas wrote on November 13, 2017 at 2:11 pm

This should begin with landlord accountability. Here are some of the landlords in this neighborhood. You'll notice none of them live IN the neighborhood: MOJO PROPERTIES LLC

PO BOX 171

SAVOY IL 61874-0171

 

HRL PROPERTIES & MGMNT LLC

1913 N 22ND ST

SPRINGFIELD IL 62702-3034

 

RIVER REAL ESTATE LLC

DARRELL & MARGARET PITTMAN

PO BOX 954

MAHOMET IL 61853-0954

 

YUEH CHANG

2940 N ELLIS ST

CHANDLER AZ 85224-1774

 

JOEL BOGEBERG

1030 WINSTON CT

WESTLAKE VILLAGE CA 91361-2059

 

NEVES GROUP INVESTMENTS

801 W BRADLEY AVE

CHAMPAIGN IL 61821

 

JEFFREY AND DONNA SMITH 

2609 GALEN DR

CHAMPAIGN IL 61821-7033

 

P&H PROPERTIES

2702 SOUTHFIELD CT

CHAMPAIGN IL 61821-6952

 

MIKE & KARA VERCHOTA

JEC DEVELOPMENT

PO BOX 377

MONTICELLO IL 61856-0377

 

JOHN & CATHERINE MANNEN

65 CHERRY DR

TUSCOLA IL 61953-2018

 

ELIZABETH BROWN

405 W WILLIAM ST

MONTICELLO IL 61856-1851

 

MCJ HOLDINGS LLC

510 S NEIL ST

CHAMPAIGN IL 61820-5220

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rsp wrote on November 13, 2017 at 2:11 pm

Have you looked at any of the properties they own? Do you know anything about what kind of landlords they are? These may all be good landlords with good properties providing low cost housing doing the best they can.

It's one thing to just look up records on the internet and another to go through the neighborhood and be able to say there is a certain house owned by a UI employee last I checked. It was referred to in the neighborhood as the "candy store", because adults would tell their kids that's why so many people were going in and out, to buy candy. Those tenants have moved. Lived there for several years with the knowledge of the sheriff's office. Landlady must have been blind.

Just listing landlords doesn't help the problem. There are abandoned properties here that may be bank owned but may not show up in the records. Maybe the owner has died, or just left. It may be possible to turn some places around, while others need to be cleared. But putting it off for years is just giving up on it.

aantulov wrote on November 14, 2017 at 1:11 am

These are public safety complaints not petty issues of property value complaints. The county's lack of cash is not an excuse. They could give them the tools to help themselves. Incorporating as a subdivision with clout can illict swift action. They could also work with non profits to get donations and man power to buy and fix up homes. The county is showing a lack of expertise of the laws granting citizens funds access on a federal state and fed level. Even realitors block by block investment could help. The purchase of homes by churches to be fixed as as group effort has been succesdful. Does this college not have an urban planning department? ???

aantulov wrote on November 14, 2017 at 1:11 am

These are public safety complaints not petty issues of property value complaints. The county's lack of cash is not an excuse. They could give them the tools to help themselves. Incorporating as a subdivision with clout can illict swift action. They could also work with non profits to get donations and man power to buy and fix up homes. The county is showing a lack of expertise of the laws granting citizens funds access on a federal state and fed level. Even realitors block by block investment could help. The purchase of homes by churches to be fixed as as group effort has been succesdful. Does this college not have an urban planning department? ???

Son of a Barrelmaker wrote on November 14, 2017 at 2:11 pm
metalmomof4 wrote on November 14, 2017 at 6:11 pm

So after reading the link I guess my next question would be, who claims the property tax payment on their taxes?  Would it be the landlord who has paperwork admitting the tenant is paying the taxes or is the tenant able to claim this small deduction when they file each year? Might have to look that up in the instructions for my 1040 this year