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DeKalb commercial building owners await new inspection rules

DeKALB – Building owner Arch Richoz doesn’t know what to expect from a DeKalb proposal that would revamp how the city inspects commercial and industrial buildings.

He’d like to think it will affect everyone, however.

DeKalb officials are drafting an ordinance they say will end the city’s history of dealing with buildings already dilapidated, crumbling or uninhabitable. Instead, the ordinance will shift the focus to finding problems when they are small by performing regular interior inspections.

“It’s something that needs to be addressed citywide,” City Attorney Dean Frieders said.

But the proposed ordinance will only affect commercial and industrial properties, leaving interior inspections on residential rental properties to be driven by complaints.

Commercial inspections

Richoz and his wife, Joan, have owned 221 W. Lincoln Highway for four years. They run their business, Castle View Real Estate, out of the building, which also holds Vinny’s Pizza. Arch said he’s seen a fire inspector come in over the years, but other than that he hasn’t had much interaction with city inspectors. He thinks some properties that should have had visits from inspectors have not.

“I’ve got mixed emotions about these things,” Arch Richoz said. “If you’re going to make an ordinance, you should enforce it.”

The new ordinance, which the DeKalb City Council should take up Sept. 8, will cover all industrial and commercial buildings, including vacant ones.

While they play a role, absentee landlords or vacant buildings aren’t the main cause for dilapidated buildings, City Attorney Dean Frieders said. He pointed to the Wurlitzer Building, which collapsed while a member of the trust in control of the building lived locally. The city also shut down the Travel Inn May 23 because of dangerous and unsanitary conditions, but the owners were on-site daily, Frieders said.

The fundamental issue as Frieders sees it is that the city has gone for decades without a meaningful way to address building problems before they result in larger issues that make the property uninhabitable.

“The city has waited until there’s a calamity to go in and try to abate a problem that already exists,” Frieders said.

Beyond avoiding catastrophe, improving building conditions also could attract more businesses, Urban Grace co-owner Sherrie Larkins said. Urban Grace opened at 255 E. Lincoln Highway in downtown DeKalb earlier this year, after Larkins and Rachel Polly searched for places in Sycamore and DeKalb.

Larkins said between rent, painting, cleaning and the overall condition of the building, they struggled before finding a place they wanted to open a businesses.

“I think we looked at three or four places before we found this place,” Larkins said. “It was discouraging.”

An outside contractor that will be selected later this year will perform the inspections, while a community development director should be hired by October will oversee the process. The city also plans to hire two part-time property maintenance inspectors.

Rental residential properties

The new ordinance and ensuing inspections won’t address apartment buildings, and the city doesn’t have any inspection processes that bring inspectors inside a residential rental property. That leaves the inspection process for residential rentals on the sidewalks where inspectors from the city’s Crime Free Housing Bureau do their work.

But city officials think having the inspectors on sidewalks is, in its own way, a means for discovering problems.

“Our hope is that if a tenant finds a significant issue, that they’re unable to get their landlord to fix, they will connect with us,” Frieders said.

A resident complaint was the catalyst for city staff’s recent move to condemn Edgebrook Manor, 912 Edgebrook Drive, Frieders said. An Edgebrook Manor resident saw an inspector performing a sidewalk inspection and approached him asking for help. When the resident invited the inspector in, what he saw triggered the larger response the next day, which ultimately lead city officials to condemn the building Friday.

Loretta Nelson was still searching for a place for her son, Aaron Nelson, to live after he had to leave the apartment he’s lived in at Edgebrook Manor for two years. As she struggled with property owners and management, she had no complaints about the actions city staff took.

She only wished they had discovered the problem earlier, before the stock of available cheap apartments had dwindled.

“I think they moved on it because it was that bad,” Loretta Nelson said. “I think if they had seen it two months ago, I think they would have closed it then.”

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