Mike Davis, director of the Central Illinois Land Bank, wants to address the numerous blighted properties around the city of Hoopeston.
But he needs some help from the city council to do it.
That was the message that Davis brought to Tuesday night’s Hoopeston City Council meeting.
Speaking via Zoom, Davis outlined how he hopes to utilize the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC) to address blighted properties in the city.
“I think there’s great potential to work with the city,” he said.
Davis provided a list of properties he hopes the land bank can address in Hoopeston.
Three of these properties, one on Front St., one on Wyman and a former apartment building o Second Avenue near the old Clark Station, are already set for demolition, Mayor Bill Crusinberry said.
He said the land bank was able to acquire the deeds for these properties through the Vermilion County tax trustee.
Davis wrote a grant proposal to the state last year and the city was awarded $125,000 in grant funds from the Illinois Housing Development Authority for blight-related work. The Hoopeston Retirement Village Foundation has also provided $100,000 in funds to address blight-related work. The city has also pledged money for the work.
“We have over $200,000 to do blight-related work,” he said.
The issue, Davis said, is utilizing this money to the best of its potential.
That’s where the IPMC comes in.
Davis believes that adopting the IPMC will allow the land bank to quickly and more efficiently address blighted properties in the city.
The three properties the land bank already has slated for demolition were only acquired after they were acquired by the tax trustee after several years of having no taxes paid on them, Davis said, adopting the IPMC will allow the land bank to step in much earlier to address blighted properties.
“Me buying properties from the county trustee is the most reactive thing we can do,” he said. “At that point, the properties are mostly falling in on themselves. My hope is to take a more proactive approach with our member communities where we’re not waiting for properties to fall in on themselves to react.”
Davis said there are properties in the city that could be acquired and addressed within months, but in order to do so he needs a point of contact to work with the city regarding housing code.
Davis said several Vermilion County communities, including Georgetown, Westville, Rankin and Ridge Farm, have all adopted the IPMC and agreed to hire Dave Biggerstaff as their code enforcement officer.
Davis told these communities that his biggest fear was getting grant money, he recently submitted $75,000 grant proposals for the communities that adopted the IPMC, and not being able to spend it all because they didn’t have the tools in place to utilize it all.
“I don’t want perfect to be the enemy of the good here,” he said.
Davis recognized that there are questions and concerns about the IPMC and he encouraged the council to make changes to the code to fit their specific needs as a community.
“This should be a living, breathing document that you do update and make little changes along the way,” he said.
Davis said the city’s current housing codes, as they are written, would not allow him to spend all of the grant money they currently have within the two-year time frame that money will be available.
He said his ability to pursue abandonment petitions on property in court or seek fast-track demolitions are absolutely dependent on having people like Biggerstaff to work with utilizing the IPMC.
Davis said he wants to move along quickly with the process since these abandonment petitions take months to get done.
“If you want me to spend the grant money, you need to work on adopting code and hiring someone like Dave sooner than later, otherwise we’re just letting time go by when we could be working on these properties,” he said.
Crusinberry provided a point of clarification about about the role Biggerstaff would play as code enforcement official.
“He wouldn’t be working on our local code with trash in the yard, junk in the yard, weeds,” he said.
Davis said the goal in hiring Biggerstaff would be having someone who is able to step in and condemn buildings when they become dangerous so that Davis can begin the process of using the grant money to move things along.
Crusinberry said Biggerstaff’s position would be an at-will hire where he would only be called in to inspect and address specific properties in the city when needed.
Davis said adopting the IPMC is part of making Biggerstaff’s job easier as well since it provides more of a degree of uniformity in housing codes between all of the communities in the county that he will be working with.
“If you’re in his shoes, you want to be working with one set of standards and not 10 different standards that are all over the place for the last 30 or 40 years,” he said.
Alderman Steve Eyrich asked how Biggerstaff would be paid if the city chooses to use his services.
Davis said the agreement that he has provided to Hoopeston and other members includes a rate of $25-$30 an hour for Biggerstaff’s services.
However, Davis said Biggerstaff might only need to visit the city once a month, so the cost would be limited.
Davis feels that the investment from local communities in Biggerstaff’s services will help unlock the ability to effectively utilize the grant money to properly address blighted properties.
Crusinberry said the ideal situation would be for Biggerstaff to inspect and act on multiple properties each time he came to work in the city.
“We could do more than one property per visit so we don’t have him coming back and forth multiple times,” he said
Eyrich asked if the city has the money to pay for Biggerstaff’s services.
Crusinberry said the money for Biggerstaff’s services, should the council approve using them, would be budgeted during the city’s upcoming budget process.
He said the city will likely have the money and it could be budgeted not to exceed a certain amount.
Alderman Bill Goodwine and Alderwoman Lourdine Florek each expressed concerns regarding the international housing code.
Goodwine felt the housing code provided the government with too much potential power over how people maintain their homes.
“I just don’t think government has the right to tell me how to maintain my house,” he said.
Goodwine cited several instances in the IPMC that go into minute details about the physical conditions of a property that can be used by the government to reprimand the property owner.
Davis countered this by pointing to jaywalking laws and how they are rarely enforced even though police officers can enforce them.
“There’s discretion, just like there is with speed limits and jaywalking, there’s discretion in enforcing code,” he said.
Goodwine asked if adopting the IPMC was a condition of Davis working with the city to use the grant money to address properties in the city.
Davis said he could get started right now if the city has the perfect housing codes in place, but, in his experience, most people can’t even send their housing codes and ordinances to him because they aren’t digitized and only available on paper that hasn’t been touched in years.
He said revamping and updating existing codes is a major undertaking that could require months, if not more, that will only serve to eat up time that could be used addressing blighted property.
Davis said adopting the IPMC is the quickest way to move forward with the process and many communities across the country have done so.
Goodwine said that the city does a very general, but workable code that can be used to address nuisance properties.
Davis said there is a big difference between nuisance issues and actually addressing blighted properties.
He said he’s worked with several communities that have continued to fine property owners for nuisance issues until they’ve wracked up tens of thousands of dollars in fines and the properties remain standing.
“At the end of the day, we’re not addressing the root cause,” Davis said.
Crusinberry said the difference with the maintenance code is it allows for the city or land bank to take ownership of that property whereas the city’s code only allows it to tear down the property and to put a lien against the property that may never be addressed.
Goodwine disagreed with this assertion and said the city’s code does allow them to demolish a property after going through the proper process of informing the property owner and taking them to court.
Davis clarified that any properties that may be acquired through the IPMC also have to go through the process of notifying the property owner, giving them time to address the situation if possible then going to circuit court before any kind of demolition action is taken.
Goodwine said the city’s code allows it to tear down the property.
Crusinberry agreed that it allows them to tear down buildings, but the property still belongs to the owner and the city can only put a lien on the property and hope that its eventually paid.
Using the IPMC, Crusinberry said the land bank can acquire the property and potentially recoup some of the money spent on it by putting the property back on the market in the future.
Davis said his goal isn’t to collect a bunch of vacant properties and just sit on them.
He said he wants to sell them to neighbors or to others.
“The goal is to get these properties back on the tax rolls,” Davis said.
Davis clarified that his goal isn’t just to demolish properties.
“I don’t just want to be the demolition guy here,” he said.
He said he hopes to be able to identify properties that can be rehabbed and put back on the market without being demolished.
Davis added that there are also zero percent loans available for properties that are currently occupied that can be used to address issues with the property to keep them from falling into disrepair.
He said he can apply for that money, but he needs someone like Biggerstaff to be on the ground to let him know where these homes are and when the grants are needed.
Davis added that the existing code can be used to address properties, but clearly it hasn’t been utilized consistently over the years in communities like Hoopeston that have accumulated all of these vacant and dilapidated buildings over the years.
“I’m here to put solutions on the table,” he said. “I’m ready to go and I want to help the community and get good work done.”
Davis said abandoned and dilapidated properties have a real cost for the communities when it comes to safety, crime rates and property values.
Davis wants to begin the work in Hoopeston as soon as possible and utilize all of the grant money and quickly and efficiently as possible so that he can go back to the state and showcase the work and hopefully get more grant money in the future.
Goodwine said that city’s existing codes can be enforced, they just haven’t been and added that he feels that the potential cost to individual property owners rights outweighs the benefits of adopting the IPMC.
Florek feels that the city doesn’t need the IPMC.
“The property maintenance code is so onerous, so onerous,” she said. “We don’t need all that stuff. I don’t like it. I don’t Hoopeston needs anything with international in the title.”
Florek recalled Davis’s point that each community can alter the IPMC to suit their needs and asked how it makes Biggerstaff’s job easier if each community’s code is still different.
Davis said the goal is to make it as easy as possible for Biggerstaff know the differences in each community.
He said if each community wants to make changes, that’s fine and he encouraged the council to discuss the changes in committee, he just doesn’t want the process to drag out while work could be getting done.
Florek also asked how Biggerstaff would go about his work, asking if he would be dictating which properties were addressed.
Davis said Biggerstaff’s role wouldn’t be to just go out and issue as many tickets as he could on his first day. Instead, he said, Biggerstaff would want to work with the city council and mayor to decide which properties should be inspected and addressed each time he comes to the city to work.
Near the end of his presentation, Davis was asked again if the council didn’t adopt the IPMC will he be able to use the grant money to address properties in the city.
Davis said that he would be able to use some of it since three of the properties are already slated for demolition and there is another property that will likely be donated to the land bank that they can use the funds to bring down.
The problem with spending the rest of the money without the IPMC, Davis said, is that the process of acquiring the properties and demolishing them takes such a long time that they likely wouldn’t be able to get enough of them done to use up the remainder of the grant money in the two-year grant period.
He said it can take almost a year to get a property through the process of demolishing it, so if they are going to utilize all of the grant funding, they need to get started soon.
Davis added that if they leave grant money unspent, it will damage the city’s chances for getting additional grant money in the future.
After nearly an hour-long discussion on the matter, Davis wrapped up his presentation and Crusinberry asked the council if they wanted to consider adopting the IPMC during the meeting.
Goodwine pointed out that, while the IPMC was on the agenda for Davis’s presentation, it wasn’t on the list of action items and therefore couldn’t be voted on.
Alderman Jeff Wise also pointed out that the two new council members, Eyrich and Alderman Joe Garrett, hadn’t had a chance to look over the IPMC as of yet.