Galesburg Looks to Address Housing Issues - News and Weather For The Quad Cities -

Galesburg Looks to Address Housing Issues

Posted: Updated: Apr 29, 2014 11:37 PM

 A handful of recent fires at vacant homes and buildings in Galesburg is shining the spotlight on a number of housing issues in the city.

The causes of almost all of those fires remains under investigation, but officials say the fire at a vacant home on the 400 block of South Academy Street on April 8, 2014, was clearly arson.

Crime Stoppers is offering up to a thousand dollar reward for information leading to the arrest of the suspect or suspects in this case. Knox College has also agreed to pay a $300 reward on top of the one offered by Crime Stoppers to help solve this crime.

Neighbors we talked to say, with so many vacant homes in their neighborhood, they are seriously concerned about safety these days.

But, while police continue to look into the crime, they remain vigilant in their efforts to keep criminals out of other vacant properties.

"If there is any indication that that property is dangerous or open, we are real quick to see that property is boarded up or made safe somehow," said Galesburg Police Chief David Christensen.

That has become a taller order in recent years. The latest housing report from Galesburg's Community Development Department shows a 42 percent increase in vacant housing units from 2000 to 2010, according to census data.

That increase in vacant housing includes a spike in abandoned properties.

Community Development Director Roy Parkin says communities across the country have seen a similar change over that same period, and the economic downturn across the U.S. is to blame.

It drove away some residents who lost jobs when big manufacturing plants closed, and it limited the financial ability others to take care of their homes, especially those with older homes, which require large investments to improve, maintain, and repair.

"And then at that point, instead of trying to find money to put into it, they just walk away from it," Parkin said.

Residents who walk away leave behind empty houses to deteriorate and overgrow with weeds which can be enticing targets for trespassers and other criminals.

"You know, susceptible to vandalism, and even an incident like we had there on Academy Street," Christensen said.

People who live near that arson site say what happened there has really increased their safety concerns about having so many vacant and abandoned buildings in their neighborhood.

"You just never know," said one neighbor, Heather Guerrero, "I mean you just don't know who is around here anymore. Can't go outside like you used to."

"I think there is more and more happening and I think they need to do something about it," agreed another neighbor, Tiffany Rose.

There may be funds available to help the city address this and other housing issues here, including competitive grants from the state and existing funding from an old Urban Development Action Grant. However, officials warn that the UDAG fund has no new revenue stream in place, so it may be completely spent within just a few years if action is not taken to create housing programs that will reimburse the fund or to create a designated funding source to replenish the resources.

City leaders need to take a look at their options to get the most bang for their buck.

"I'd like to see a mixed approach to dealing with housing," Parkin said. "I think there is a strong need to try to renovate some of the existing units to try to address those abandoned units, but at the same time, there's a lot of people that are looking for new locations, so there's a need for a residential subdivision that allows people to build new houses when they want to."

Other housing issues highlighted by the Community Development Department in a presentation to City Council on Monday night included a need for new single family residential lots, a need for housing rehab funding to help lo- income individuals to help rehab rental units and owner-occupied units, and the possibility of doing urban homesteading. That's taking the big, old houses that have been converted into multi-unit apartment buildings and turning them back into single family big homes.

Parkin also talked about the possibilities for building starter homes on vacant city-owned residential lots where the city has demolished dilapidated buildings.

On Monday, City Council agreed to form a new housing committee with community members, to look more in-depth at the housing problems and possible solutions, helping to inform decisions about specific projects and priorities in the future.

Officials say taking care of housing issues is essential for attracting new residents to the city and promoting future economic growth.

And, the police chief says it goes hand in hand with crime prevention.

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