Hedge Road residents prep for relocation

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Trash bags are piled at the curb in front of a house on Hedge Road that has recently been vacated. The City of Champaign is seizing 46 properties in the neighborhood for the addition of a drainage area. Photo taken Wednesday, October 9, 2019.

Only one house on the north side of Hedge Road has been demolished. Several more have been vacated recently, with the rest still being occupied.

Yet by 2022, all of the 46 properties on the three-block section are scheduled for demolition and purchase by the City of Champaign, in order to make way for a drainage pond to be built between Hedge Road and the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks.

For Theresa Henderson, who has rented a home in the affected area for the past three years, she has to move out, soon.

“In 2020, I’ll have to move out,” she said.

City council members approved a plan in March that aims to improve the entire Garden Hills neighborhood, which does not have storm sewers and is often subject to flooding. 

Every Garden Hills street is set to receive connecting storm sewers and streetscaping, with the drains flowing into a detention pond/park area that will be built on the north side of Hedge where houses are now.

Clarissa Nickerson Fourman, a city council member who lives in Garden Hills, said the process is ongoing, as “some buyouts have been finished, and some have not.”

The majority of the homes on both sides of Hedge Road are rental properties, with only a handful being owned by the people who reside there.

Willia Biggers, who has lived on the south side of the street for several years and is one of the few who owns her house, said her neighbors aren’t benefiting from living there.

“The owners don’t live here, and they’re just waiting to get rid of this mess–to get paid,” she explained. “I can’t just up and move because I own (my house), so we’re just kind of stuck.”

Assistant City Engineer Eleanor Blackmon said the city is following enhanced federal relocation guidelines, with the houses being demolished once they are vacated.

Fourman added that property owners would have the first say in the process, not the renters.

“If the people aren’t renting, then they’re at the mercy of their landlord,” she said. “The relocation process is determined by the landlord signing off on it with the city, and I would encourage it, because it has some good benefits.”

Per the Federal Uniform Relocation Act guidelines, tenants in the affected properties will be given 90-day notices offering comparable housing for them in city limits. Tenants will then be eligible for assistance with moving expenses, down payments and rental assistance. Additional assistance may be provided for elderly and disabled residents.

The budget for acquisition and relocation of residents on the north side of Hedge Road and Hedge Court and one property on the south side of Joanne Lane is $4 million.

Once demolition is complete, residents will have to wait at least eight more years until the detention basin is complete. Blackmon said the city currently does not have money for the project, thus requiring the delay.

“(The) council has asked to look into whether that could be accelerated,” she added. “There’s accruing funds for that work.”

On the west side of Hedge Road, Tina Hardin points to the house across from her to the north.

“From this house, all the way down to the corner, nobody lives in,” she says, glancing at a five-house section. The corner house has garbage bags piled at the curb, but the others do not look vacant to the naked eye.

Hardin points to a boarded-up white house kitty-corner from hers where 14-yard-old Elijha Booker was shot and killed at in May. Biggers also mentions a north side home across the street where she says a man “kicked the back door in from the tracks and slept there all winter.”

Biggers said she is tired of the neighborhood being neglected by city officials. She said she believes authorities do not view Garden Hills as a priority because of violence that has taken place there.

“They’ve done that because of the crime and all that over here,” she explained. “They’ve been trying to maintain, not doing anything special because of the neighborhood, since it’s low income and they’re finding bodies and such. I bought this house and was here two weeks, and someone got killed.”

The aspect of waiting seven years for a park to be built has led to some confusion among Hedge Road residents as to what the end result will be. Biggers said she has heard several different stories about the project, and no one has been able to give concrete answers regarding the timetable of the project.

Waiting will be one problem, but Biggers also said she does not look forward to living next to a park, which will encompass the small pond ten years from now.

“For us it’s going to be an eyesore for the homeowners on this side and you don’t know how long,” she said. “I don’t want to live across from no park, it’s not safe anymore. It’s hard enough living next to a railroad track.”

Regardless of the timeline, residents have already started moving out. Zay Britt, who was visiting his aunt on the north side of the street, said she has talked about moving but nothing has been finalized yet.

Henderson said she hopes to find a good location through the relocation process, even if it means not getting much money since she is a renter.

“Makes no difference to me,” she said. I’m ready to go.”

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