Digging Deeper: Fix or Flatten

Old, abandoned, buildings are causing real problems all across the Tri-States. So, why aren’t cities taking faster action to deal with it?

Neighbors like Sheila Campbell are frustrated.  “It about makes me want to cry,” Campbell said. “It makes me a little angry.”

In Quincy, Donna Willis shared that same sentiment. “They need to tear it down before somebody gets hurt,” Willis said.

All across the Tri-States, dilapidated buildings hurt property values and cause health problems, as weeds grow up and rodents move in.

In almost every case, property owners do nothing but let the buildings rot until the city moves in.

Towns like Kahoka, Missouri, have had their hands full.

“You couldn’t even occupy the building if you wanted to. So it had gotten to the point where it needed to be gone.” Mayor Jerry Webber said. “It was in total disrepair. It would’ve cost you a fortune to try and restore it.”

John Huffman has owned Papa’s Pizza in Kahoka for nearly 30 years. However, last year, when the building next to his starting falling apart, it made him uneasy.

“You get a little bit worried if the thing collapsed, for your customers when they’re in here that they won’t get hurt,” Huffman said. “If it came down on the roof, and my roof would happen to collapse.”

The City of Kahoka was able to knock down the building by using federal Community Development Block Grants. With an average demolition costing around $3,500, property owners only need to pay $500, and the grant picks up the rest. Mayor Webber said property owners usually will go for that, avoiding a costly legal battle for the city.

Just 21 miles away, in Keokuk, Iowa, there are more abandoned buildings, including a home at 6th and Concert Streets.

“They can be a threat to safety because they can be an attractive nuisance,” City Administrator Aaron Burnett said. “Kids or people engaging in bad behaviors of all kinds can use that as a place to do something illegal.”

Burnett also said the city is working on removing them. He said 30 to 40 homes are torn down on a yearly basis, often after the city forces the issue in court.

“It does encourage new investment,” Burnett said. “You do see kind of a whole lifting of the neighborhood when you get rid of the worst properties within it.”

In Quincy, the city’s Fix or Flatten Program also aims to improve neighborhoods.

Chuck Bevelheimer is the Director of Planning & Development. He said it can take the city quite some time to gain full control of a dilapidated home.

“On average, it costs the city a couple thousand dollars in legal time, to get through the legal proceedings to get us into a position where we either get an order to demolish, or we get a judicial deed,” Bevelheimer said.

That’s why almost a year later, two fire damaged homes off of Sycamore Street are still standing.

Neighbors like Nakita Paetow said it’s taking too long.

“I’m scared kids are going to go inside there, like little kids running around the neighborhood, and lord only knows what’s in those houses,” Paetow said.

Bevelheimer added that when the city is able to tear down the homes, the lots are then put up for sale.

“If you’ve got a twenty-five or thirty-foot lot, having that extra yard space is valued, and often that’s what we get; neighbors wanting to buy it. We don’t ever recover our costs,” Bevelheimer said.

Back in Kahoka, that’s exactly what Huffman did with the property next to his restaurant. He said while he now owns it, if a business does want to build on it, he’d be more than happy to sell.

“Having an empty lot to give them is a lot better than giving them a dilapidated building that they have to pour a bunch of money into to start a business,” Huffman said.

In Quincy, there were concerns that the city would do away with the fix or flatten program, but it has been spared at least for now.

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