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City Beat: Council considers no-nuisance housing plan

A new program would require Springfield landlords to register their properties with the city

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A growing number of nuisance properties led Springfield City Council on Nov. 13 to review several bills that would put more responsibility on landlords to address problems at their properties.

Building Development Services Director Chris Straw, who presented the bills, said cases of nuisance properties have increased in recent years.

“I anticipate anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 more cases from what we had last year,” he said. “It has grown, and I don’t see an end to it. It seems to be moving across the city slowly and surely.”

The new legislation would require landowners to register their properties with the city and accept responsibility when addressing such issues as excessive trash, dilapidated buildings and indoor items left outside. It also would establish the definition of a vacant structure as one that is substantially void of personal belongings or furnishings.

The proposal follows a history of trouble identifying and contacting responsible parties after a service request for a property is received by the city, Straw said.

“There are currently properties registered as an LLC which lack a responsible party with authority to act in the owner’s behalf. There also are properties being registered using the family’s last name only,” council documents read. “Many properties are controlled by a lending institution or property maintenance company, which makes it extremely difficult to identify and contact a responsible party to secure a response to issues in a timely manner.”

Straw said registration could easily be completed online at no cost to the landlord. If a service request for an unregistered property is received, a notice would be sent to the owner.

“This notice of violation is a courtesy,” he said. “You’ve got 10 days to register.”

If the owner fails to register following the notice, they would receive a penalty fee of $200.

Roughly 20 speakers signed up to speak to council following Straw’s presentations.

“I’ve invested in this city for 50 years,” one landlord, Floyd Malone, said. “I don’t plan on registering my properties. If they want to know who owns that property, they can go over here to the county and look it up.”

He argued renters would begin to turn to the city regarding their problems, rather than coming to their landlords first.

Straw countered, saying the new safe housing program would not allow him or other city inspectors to enter a structure without permission.
 
“We knock on the door, and we seek permission to inspect. If the property owner or the tenant says, ‘Nope, I don’t want you in here,’ fine, I’m done,” Straw said. “I walk away, unless I feel that there are some grievous conditions inside that structure that concern me about the safety of whoever’s living there or who might be visiting there. In which case, I go for a search warrant before a judge, and I’ve got to prove probable cause.”

Another landlord, Mark Tendai, said once a property is leased, he gives up “99.9 percent” of the property’s possession to the renter.

“We don’t control what the renter does in the property. The renter does,” Tendai said. “As we give up those rights, we’re still held liable for what the renters do.”

Councilman Craig Hosmer pointed out landlords have the right to make sure their tenants comply with the law.

Tendai suggested council table the bills, so city landlords have a chance to speak together on the changes.

“We haven’t been given a chance yet,” he said. “We’d like to work on this bill as a group. We would like to start sometime soon.”

Eric Pauly, president of the Phelps Grove Neighborhood Association, supported the registration process. He reiterated not enough landlords care about their properties.

“The Phelps Neighborhood Association has worked tirelessly for decades to get these concerns addressed,” Pauly said.

Another resident of Phelps Grove, Jane Sellars, emphasized the need for the registration bills, claiming almost half of the homes in the neighborhood are rented.

Council will vote on the bills Nov. 27.

Making room
Council rezoned 1.7 acres generally located at 1650 S. Ingram Mill Road to a general retail district despite traffic concerns. The vote was 7-1, with Councilman Mike Schilling opposed and Councilwoman Kristi Fulnecky absent.

The change allows for the proposed use of a veterinary clinic. Previously zoned as a planned development, the purchase of the property by an unnamed buyer was contingent on the rezoning.

“They’re going to start their planning,” said Geoffrey Butler, who represented the client at the bill’s public hearing.

Butler, an architect with Butler, Rosenbury & Partners Inc., declined to disclose the anticipated buyer behind the veterinary clinic plans.

Haunting hazards
Springfield Senior Planner Olivia Hough successfully presented a resolution before council that would allow the city to apply for a $300,000, three-year grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct brownfields hazardous and petroleum assessments across the city.

The city’s 18-year-old brownfields program is currently out of funds, she said.

“We’ve completed over 260 environmental assessments citywide,” Hough said of the brownfields, brownfields, which are urban or industrial commercial sites that are underutilized or abandoned due to real or perceived contamination.

A grant would allow the program to continue to run and put particular sites back into productive economic use by eliminating environmental threats.

“The EPA does like us to identify target areas in our application,” Hough said. “Our target areas follow our community priorities. We’re looking at northwest Springfield as our target area. We’re specifically calling out Kearney Street, College Street and Commercial Street.”

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