Towns wrestle with abandoned houses
Some area municipalities forced to turn to legal action
While driving through the village, Algonquin building inspector Diane LaCalamita and property maintenance inspector Kim Nix look for inoperable cars, grass that needs to be mowed, overgrown shrubs blocking access to the street or sidewalk, accumulation of garbage, broken windows, excess dog feces, or snow that hasn’t been shoveled in the winter.
These are signs of vacant houses and buildings that need to be monitored. In recent years, vacant homes – and the problems surrounding them – have grown in number, occupying an ever-increasing amount of municipal officials’ time.
Municipalities have a few options to make sure properties stay up to code even though they are vacant and possibly bank-owned.
In Algonquin, if properties are in violation of local ordinances, property owners receive two warnings. If those warnings aren’t heeded, they receive a court citation and have to attend the village’s administrative adjudication process, LaCalamita said.
McHenry, Woodstock and Crystal Lake also have administrative adjudication processes.
The adjudication process is similar to court, except it is hosted at the city hall with a third party administrative law judge, said Erik Morimoto, the director of engineering and building in Crystal Lake.
“Then we don’t have to go through [McHenry County Court in] Woodstock and wait through the backlog,” Morimoto said.
Municipalities also can go to a circuit court judge, who can order a contractor to remedy a situation at the owner’s expense or allow the village to go in and complete the work itself. Fines also may be issued.
The owner would have to reimburse the village, or the village can place a lien on the property for the work done on the house.
“We want to recoup those costs at the expense of the violator,” LaCalamita said.
When Algonquin officials discover a vacant house, they call the bank to see whether it will help make sure the property is maintained. Banks have preservation departments for maintenance of foreclosed homes, LaCalamita said.
“We do not want the house to fall apart rapidly and be open to vandalism,” LaCalamita said.
Often, municipalities aren’t aware of vacant houses until a neighbor alerts them.
“Typically, we don’t know about it until we get a complaint on it,” said Ryan Schwalenberg, the director of construction and neighborhood services for McHenry.
Schwalenberg said whoever owns the property is responsible to maintain it. Essentially, the phase of the foreclosure process the house is in decides who is responsible for the upkeep. Vacant properties have become more common, Schwalenberg said.
In Woodstock, where the city does not have a property maintenance code, city officials can enforce only the height of grass, Assistant City Manager Derik Morefield said. If there is a problem with a house’s shingles or siding, the city can’t force a bank to repair it, Morefield said.
“Our jurisdiction kicks in when someone wants to make improvements to a property,” Morefield said.
If there is a vacant property and there are building code problems, city officials will try to contact the property owner. But dealing with vacant properties is difficult.
“Trying to ensure those properties are secure and maintained is a concern for everyone,” Morefield said.
In Crystal Lake, if there are code issues, property owners first receive written notice.
“We want to give the property owner the chance to address them,” Morimoto said. “We don’t want to extend more taxpayer dollars than we need to, but we want to address immediate threats. It’s a case-by-case basis.”