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Neighbors at a house at 1011 W. Walnut St. complained to Springfield City Council in November after 13 years of unresolved problems.
McKenzie Robinson | SBJ
Neighbors at a house at 1011 W. Walnut St. complained to Springfield City Council in November after 13 years of unresolved problems.

Some nuisance buildings a persistent problem

Posted online

Neighbors of a certain empty and dilapidated house say they are tired of looking at it.

With its missing front steps and the mismatched patch of siding put up when its collapsing awning was demolished, plus myriad other issues, the 1011 W. Walnut St. house is deemed by neighbors to be an eyesore – and for 13 years, it has generated complaints.

Now, city leaders are struggling to determine what to do about this property and others like it. Mayor Ken McClure has called for a study session to discuss nuisance properties, and some members of council are suggesting changes to city charter provisions and adding more teeth to enforcement.

According to City Manager Jason Gage, the city has nearly 170,000 residents and quite a lot of poverty, and many homes are in disrepair.

“They just don’t provide the quality of life and health that a home should provide,” he said, adding the city’s role is to ensure conditions of buildings meets certain minimum standards.

At the Nov. 15 meeting of Springfield City Council, two neighbors approached the city leaders to ask for help.

Julie Bloodworth, who lives next door, described the typical process of complaint followed by failed inspection, then minimal repair and reinspection. Nothing ever gets resolved, she said.

Duane Keys, another neighbor, told council the city has documented many years of violations that are always technically remedied, just in the nick of time. While the remedies meet the letter of the law, Keys said they do not meet the spirit of care and attention. For example, if a porch is falling down, the owner may choose to just demolish it.

“The house in my neighborhood is just one example of many seemingly abandoned or poorly maintained structures mired in decades of owner neglect and endless bureaucracy,” Keys said.

The property is a familiar one to council members and city staff.

“Basically, we have an owner who’s repaired items on the cheap in an ugly way,” said Gage. “Generally speaking, codes from a legal perspective can’t really address ‘ugly,’ but we do believe there are other aspects … that we can address.”

Bloodworth told council she was looking for decisive action, plus resources directed toward the problem. She said the city’s Department of Building Development Services website says its staff of 30 operates on only 2% of the general fund.

“The mathematics of these fast facts go a long way to explain why I think BDS has been ineffective and why I’m afraid it is doomed to failure without drastic changes,” she said.

While examining photos of the property in question, Councilperson Craig Hosmer expressed dismay.

“If these are the houses that we have that are meeting our code, we as a city should be embarrassed,” he said. “These houses shouldn’t be allowed to stay in the city of Springfield.”

He linked nuisance properties and criminal conduct as twin problems that crop up time and again.

“We’ve got to do something about them instead of just having people complain over and over,” he said. “If we don’t do something different, we’re doomed to get the same results as we’ve been getting.”

Gage said the city is working on making changes.

“We have new eyes in the department; we’re looking at a variety of angles, but we still have to follow the laws,” he said. “I totally agree with you practically; it’s unacceptable.”

Hosmer said self-regulation is key.

“If you don’t have people in the city of Springfield think they’d better take care of their property or something’s going to happen – if there’s no consequences to bad behavior – there’s no reason to do anything different,” he said.

Mayor McClure said the issue was worthy of a council study session, but Councilperson Abe McGull went even further.

“Like many cities, municipalities, the charter has not grown as fast as the city, and I think and I really believe that we should take a comprehensive look not only at BDS codes and everything else; we should take a comprehensive look at all charter provisions and ordinances,” he said.

McGull noted that every city outgrows its legislation over time.

“It’s time for us to do that now with this charter … a comprehensive look at everything from soup to nuts,” he said.

The blight complaint process
BDS Director Dwayne Shmel, who has been in his post for 11 months, said 1011 W. Walnut St. falls into the category of a blighted building. There are different codes and processes for buildings that are considered blighted and those that are considered dangerous.

“The process is quite lengthy for a blighted building,” he said. “That kind of accounts for the long, drawn-out process that we have.”

But he noted the long process is intentional.

“We don’t want to deprive people of the right to make necessary repairs on their own houses,” he said.

Shmel said neighbors can anonymously file a nuisance request by calling the city, and BDS will dispatch an inspector. He added more than half the time, the inspector does not find a violation, but when one is found, a case is opened.

At that point, a property owner receives a courtesy letter, both posted on the property and sent by mail. In 62% of cases, he said, the owner or tenant mitigates the nuisance within 10 days.

“I think some people don’t realize they’re in violation,” he said. “They didn’t realize this particular condition violates an ordinance; they just didn’t know any better.”

Some are embarrassed, and this may help some people to begin thinking about community standards, Shmel said.

“We’re hoping neighborhoods self-correct,” he said.

Shmel said dangerous and blighted buildings are trending downward.

According to Shmel, in 2020, Springfield had 405 dangerous building cases. There were 759 in 2019 and 860 in 2018.

Trash complaints numbered 1,669 in 2020, and this year through November there have been about 1,600, Shmel said, which means 2021 is tracking about the same. That compares favorably to 2019, when there were 1,945 cases.

Overgrown lawns likewise declined, from 1,901 in 2019 to 851 in 2020.

Shmel said his office is hoping to move from complaint-based initiation to having city inspectors initiate complaints or service requests.

“It would require more resources for the department to do that, but it would also eliminate the number of false alarms,” he said.

He added his inspectors are trained to know if a violation is present.

“It would be nice to move from that neighbor-versus-neighbor dynamic,” he said. “We’d like to get to that point.”

Shmel said his department performed a three-month study this year, looking at 18,204 properties in nine neighborhoods north of Chestnut Expressway – an area chosen because of its high density of complaints. His staff found 3,300 potential violations.

“Our plan was to go back and look at the rest of the city, but it turned out to take us a little bit longer than we thought,” he said. “We’re trying to kind of get our finger on the pulse of the community.”

Gage told SBJ the BDS had been given significant additional resources for personnel in the current budget. The budgeting process for the new fiscal year begins in a few weeks.

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