The Springfield City Council continues to discuss the problem of distressed properties in Springfield without making any concrete proposals, in spite of the fact that the city commissioned a study two years ago to explore ways the system could be improved.
The report contained 12 recommendations directed to Public Works, Code Enforcement, and the Office of Planning and Economic Development, and three of those recommendations were identified as having the highest potential impact: transition to a proactive inspection process, an increase in municipal lien foreclosures, and shorten the maximum registration period for vacant houses from three years to one.
Ward 3 Ald. Roy Williams Jr. has proposed registration of landlords of certain multifamily properties as part of the solution to the problem of blighted properties in the city. The matter was discussed during the May 31 Committee of the Whole meeting, as well as the June 6 council meeting.
In the summer of 2021, Springfield gained support from a Harvard graduate student through the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. The Initiative focuses on helping recipients achieve organizational change. Mayor Jim Langfelder and Director of Public Works Nate Bottom received recommendations for improving the city's process for dealing with distressed properties from Harvard fellow Megan Willis-Jackson. According to a press release issued after the report was delivered, Willis-Jackson worked for 10 weeks with the city of Springfield analyzing processes and systems, talking with staff and community members, and visiting properties while also conducting research and collaborating with mentors at Bloomberg Harvard. Langfelder said at the time that "this report is informative and outline[s] clearly ways we can improve our processes at the city to help keep our neighborhoods intact and thriving."
During a Committee of the Whole meeting less than two years later, the Bloomberg Harvard report seems to have been forgotten. Ward 8 Ald. Erin Conley suggested to the group that a committee be formed to study many of the issues addressed in the report, but no one in the room mentioned that such a study had already been done.
"To provide a high-level overview, the main recommendation for Public Works is to transition to a proactive inspection process as opposed to reactive," wrote Willis-Jackson. Currently, she said, inspectors only visit properties after a complaint has been filed. "The nature of this reactive process means that buildings tend not to be inspected and cited until they have fallen into disrepair enough that a neighbor submits a complaint." Willis-Jackson recommended instead that inspectors do windshield inspections of the entire city at least every six months and preferably more often. She also found that communication between the Office of Public Works, the Office of Code Enforcement and the Office of Planning and Economic Development is cumbersome, slowing down the process of identifying problem properties.
Shorten registration periods
Under city rules, a building that is vacant and has two or more violations must be put on a registry and the owner must pay a fee to renew the registration permit every three months. Owners have up to three years to correct the deficiencies identified; if repairs are not made, a complaint may be filed by the city in Administrative Court, where the judge may order the building demolished. Willis-Jackson observed that reducing the registration period from three years to one would increase compliance. She found that in a random sample of registered buildings, 35 percent had had no work done after two years on the registration list, and that referral to Administrative Court was the triggering event that caused owners to initiate repairs. Shortening the registration period to one year would cause those owners to begin work much sooner.
Municipal lien foreclosures
In her report, Willis-Jackson observes that selective lien foreclosure would reduce the number of blighted properties. Lien foreclosure occurs when a property has accumulated unpaid fines. The city may foreclose and take ownership of the property. She states that "Code Enforcement currently does not foreclose on properties, despite having the legal ability to do so, in large part because of the large administrative burden inherent in pursuing lien foreclosures." She argues that direct revenue from the resale of foreclosed properties and the indirect effect of increased property values on the block resulting from halting dilapidation would offset the costs of foreclosure. The city would not have to engage in widespread foreclosure for the technique to have an effect. Heavily publicizing a few cases of municipal lien foreclosure "will show other owners of problem properties that the city is serious about correcting violations. The city may find that issuing the notice of foreclosure itself may spur into action property owners who previously ignored violations...."
The Harvard Bloomberg report was written by a subject matter expert at the request of the city. She interviewed dozens of people throughout Springfield, including city decision-makers and staff as well as community activists. It contains many more recommendations besides the ones highlighted in this article, and its entire text can be found at file:///C:/Users/User/Documents/Articles/City%20Council%20Meeting%2023-06-06/HarvardFellowship0921%20suggestions%20for%20improvement.pdf
Don Howard is an intern at Illinois Times while completing his master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting at University of Illinois Springfield. He can be reached at [email protected] or 336-455-6966.