Champaign’s vacant properties can languish for years without correction; Fines increased in past two years

You are currently viewing Champaign’s vacant properties can languish for years without correction; Fines increased in past two yearsDarrell Hoemann
The former C.S. Johnson factory in Champaign on Tuesday, February 28, 2023. photo by Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

Building paint is peeling, junk litters the property and “no trespassing” signs sporadically adorn fences surrounding the approximately 330,000 square feet of property of the mostly vacant C.S. Johnson factory in Champaign. 

The factory, which used to manufacture equipment for the concrete industry before it closed nearly 20 years ago, sits behind streetside businesses near the 400 block of S. Country Fair Drive.

It is currently owned by Community Property Management (CPM), a local leasing company founded by Erwin Goldfarb, a Champaign resident and Tango aficionado. Goldfarb and CPM did not respond to repeated requests for interviews, but multiple city officials said the C.S. Johnson lot is being used by CPM for storage. 

The factory is just one of several vacant and, in some cases, deteriorating properties in Champaign. 

In general, studies of communities find that a significant number vacant buildings can badly impact neighborhoods. For example, a 2017 report from the Urban Institute said the state of people’s neighborhoods affects individual and family well-being. Violence, higher rates of chronic illness, poor physical health, and stunted development in children have all been tied to proximity to vacant structures. 

Champaign Code Compliance Manager Tim Spear said “there isn’t really a great process” for handling vacant properties in Champaign. He said there are two ways a residential property gets reported as vacant: a citizen reports an external eyesore, or the city identifies it. 

Section 22-301.3 of Champaign’s Municipal Code states that all vacant structures should be maintained and kept safe, secure, and sanitary so as not to “adversely affect the public health or safety.”

The Champaign Neighborhood Services Department and the Champaign Fire Department said vacant structures only cause an issue if the city receives complaints from citizens or if safety concerns are posed. 

“If you have a vacant property, as long as you maintain it, then there’s no problem with it,” Spear said. “We don’t need to do anything. It’s the ones where people aren’t mowing their grass, paint is peeling, gutters are falling off, things like that … we want to address.”

Although the city does not formally track vacant commercial buildings, its Neighborhood Services Department does maintain an ongoing list of vacant residential buildings. Because the C.S. Johnson Factory is not a residence, it, like all other commercial buildings in Champaign, exists outside of regulation for appearance and vacancy. 

CU-CitizenAccess has obtained Champaign’s vacancy list through a Freedom of Information Act request, which lists 87 open cases for vacant residences since 2009. These cases are opened when the city receives a citizen report or a city employee identifies issues like safety concerns.

Fees from these cases have soared in recent fiscal years.

According to city records obtained in a separate Freedom of Information Act request, Champaign received $7,032.50 from vacant residence registration fees, late fees and lien fees in last full fiscal year. The city has received $6,502 in these fees so far during fiscal year 2024, which ends this June. 

In past fiscal years, total fees were smaller. The city received $775 in fiscal year 2022, $1,200 in 2020, $0 in 2019, $3,048 in 2018 and $0 in 2017. No data was provided for fiscal year 2021.

Spear said the vacant residences list is often not fully up to date, and the city is often not aware of every vacant residence. Residences may also be taken off and on the vacancy list if the property is sporadically being rented. 

Champaign housing study finds market shift to multi-family developments

Rolf Pendall, a professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois, said Champaign’s housing market has shifted due to the large demand for student housing, resulting in more multi-family developments. 

“The way that the city changed the rules about new development made it more profitable for developers to propose apartment buildings,” Pendall said. “Sometimes, the things that were there before are getting demolished and replaced with higher density housing.”

Pendall said Champaign has been making many pro-housing moves, many of which are designed to bring the population growth closer to the core of Champaign-Urbana. 

He said that, for developers, reducing demand for housing on the outskirts of Champaign is ideal. 

“It’s really expensive and probably not meeting the growing market to build all these new subdivisions out on the western side of town,” Pendall said. 

Pendall said that in parts of Champaign where people are less willing to pay high prices for property, vacant residences may have an even worse depressing effect on the market and might be a sign that the neighborhood is experiencing other kinds of trouble. 

Pendall said vacant properties aren’t just self-contained issues — they affect their surroundings. 

“They could be reducing the property value of the neighboring properties and contributing … to a broader decline in the property values on the surrounding blocks,” Pendall said. 

Vacant property list not always accurate, hard to track

Darrell Hoemann 1119 Centennial Drive in Champaign on Tuesday, February 28, 2023. photo by Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

Spear said the department “periodically” goes through the list and updates entries. Case details for the vacant property at 501 E. Vine St., which has been an open case since 2009, lists sporadic inspections of the property, ranging from a couple months apart to years apart.

Several properties listed had outdated owners. Some, like 1011 Northwood Drive, haven’t been owned by the listed owner in as many as four years. 

One property, 1319 Hedge Road in Garden Hills, was demolished in 2016 by Champaign, yet it remains on the list.

The list also had address issues, including an incorrect road designation and an address that no longer exists that was merged with another address years ago.

Spear said the city wants to give owners a chance to fix the infractions, so residences don’t get put on the city’s vacancy list until the owners receive a second infraction of city ordinances. 

Once receiving a complaint, neighborhood services will issue a warning to the owner of the property, asking them to bring their property back into order. 

“We’ll send out a letter saying ‘Your property is in violation of the vacant structure ordinance for this reason,’” Spear said. “You’re required to register with the city within 14 days with a $300 registration fee, and you need a plan as to what you’re going to do to address the issues with your building.”

Most often, Spear said, the city doesn’t get a response from the owner, so another letter will be sent out 14 days later. A $50 fee is added to the flat $300 charge every day the owner fails to register with the city. 

After 30 days, the department forwards the issue to Champaign’s legal department, which will place a lien on the property for the unpaid fees. 

“Then, we request an administrative search warrant that will grant us permission to go inside, get a good look at the property and see what the issues are,” Spear said. “Is it just some minor stuff? Or are there some major problems?”

When inspecting the property, staff will bring a rehabilitation technician to estimate the cost of repairing the property.

“Then, we take that information and we determine … ‘Would a reasonable person repair this?” Spear said. “Or is it something that’s beyond repair? Is the cost of the repair more than it’s worth to have a repaired property?”

The department refers again to the city’s legal department with requests for either a repair or demolition order. Spear emphasized the process is lengthy and gives the property owner another chance to intervene, but said that intervention is rare at this stage in the process.

Spear said the city’s current process is mostly for cases where the city can’t find anyone who will take responsibility for the property.

“Sometimes, it comes down to nobody showing up, and there’s no other course besides demolishing the property,” Spear said.

Darrell Hoemann 608 N. Fifth St. in Champaign on Tuesday, February 28, 2023. photo by Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

Spear said the Neighborhood Services Department only covers single- and double-family residences, not commercial buildings or apartments. 

Robert Simmons, a deputy fire marshal at the Champaign Fire Department, said the fire department handles inspecting the interiors of commercial buildings. He said the fire department inspects commercial properties once a year for assembly occupancies and once every two years for business and mercantile occupancies. 

Simmons said the fire department also has no issue with a building sitting vacant. 

“A property can sit vacant all day long as long as it’s not open to intrusion or has any visible safety concerns around its exterior,” Simmons said. “In terms of general vacancy, we don’t have an inspection or marking process.”

Although the fire department does not have a formal procedure for keeping track of vacant commercial buildings, Simmons said it does have a flagging system for vacant properties during dispatch.

“In cases where there may be a safety concern or structural issue … we may put a notification into our 911 center to say that if a dispatch is called here, the building is structurally unsafe and crews shouldn’t enter the building,” Simmons said. 

Vacant residences primarily owned by individuals

In a list of all 87 vacant residential structures in Champaign as of February this year, provided via a Freedom of Information Act request, 69 were owned by residents, 4 were owned by trustees and 14 were owned by businesses. 

Nearly all of the company-owned vacant properties are owned by property management groups. 

One property, 608 E. Eureka St., was marked vacant by the city on June 12, 2023. The single-family residence is owned by Courage Connection, an Urbana-based domestic abuse support nonprofit organization.  

Darrell Hoemann 608 E. Eureka St. in Champaign on Tuesday, February 28, 2023. photo by Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

The city reported zero vacant residences on the University of Illinois campus.

Some owners were listed with multiple vacant properties each:

  • A Savoy couple owns 1702 and 1704 Princeton Drive, two single-story and single-family homes. Neither property is for sale and, according to Champaign’s vacant residences list, the properties have been vacant since 2016 and 2017 respectively.
  • One man is listed as the sole owner of 311 Cottage Court and is listed with a woman as a co-owner of 309 Cottage Court. Both residences are small single-family homes.
  • A woman’s trustee is listed for two small single-story, single-family residences at 805 and 812 S. Fair St. The properties were added to the vacant structures list in 2021 for “multiple violations” of city code ordinances. 

Owned by someone else, 814 S Fair St. is also vacant, creating a cluster of three vacant properties on one block of S. Fair Street.

Garden Hills, a neighborhood currently undergoing heavy construction, contains several vacant properties. 1318 Hedge Road, 1319 Hedge Road and 4 Hedge Court make up a cluster of three vacant properties at the intersection of Hedge Road and Hedge Court. 

706 and 708 State St., two medium-sized single-family homes, are both vacant and owned separately. 

Although a majority of the listed vacant properties are smaller residences, some, like 1101 W. Charles St., are spacious multi-story homes. 

Champaign’s Tim Spear said, at one point, there were plans on the city’s end to revisit the entire vacant structure ordinance and make changes, but was unsure of the city’s timeline.

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