Good, bad, and ugly of Decatur's neighborhood revitalization efforts
Decatur’s neighborhood revitalization initiative is not keeping pace with the rate of blight, is underfunded, and is the result of decades of population loss, labor force reduction, poverty, and policies that negatively and disproportionately impacted Black Americans. These challenges and how to fix them will be the subject of a city council study session on neighborhood revitalization taking place on January 9.
The study session will compare 2019 vs. 2022 data on the condition of neighborhoods within the city’s urban core, provide an update on progress of recent neighborhood revitalization initiatives, discuss implementation of recommendations from the report “Equitable, Efficient, and Effective Code Enforcement – A Roadmap for Decatur, Illinois” by the Center for Community Progress, and propose changes to city codes including garbage collection, a rental registration and inspection program, a vacant property registration ordinance, and a chronic nuisance ordinance.
In 2019 and 2022, the city recorded existing structure conditions, percent vacant and unused parcels, percent owner-occupied residences, equalized assessed values (EAVs), and criminal activity in each of our urban core neighborhoods. As a generalization, three of those measures have shown widespread improvement in our urban core including existing structure condition, increases in the percent of owner-occupied residences, and increases in EAVs. While some neighborhoods had decreases in the percent of vacant parcels others had increases. The crime data is not comparable between 2019 and 2022. The 2019 data calculated serious criminal activity while the data presented for this study session compared total number of crimes between 2020 and 2022 (in 2021 all law enforcement agencies were required to change to a different methodology of reporting crimes making comparisons with 2019 data invalid). Nevertheless, some neighborhoods experienced a decrease in crime while others experienced an increase.
Between 2019 and 2022, the city demolished 156 properties. As stated by city staff, the city needs to demolish 250-300 delipidated properties annually to keep pace with the rate of blight. While it is good news that there were increases in EAV throughout the urban core, the growth of EAV was far below inflation during this time and is still below 2012 levels. All urban core neighborhoods combined had an EAV of $205.3 million in 2012, $164.9 million in 2018, and $173.2 million in 2022. It is also unclear whether the city council’s 2023 adopted budget has adequate funding to meet our neighborhood revitalization goals. This is because the 5 measures mentioned above lack defined goals. For example, there is no goal for what the existing structure condition score should be, no information on how much money we have spent to date to improve existing structure conditions, and no indication of how much money is needed to reach whatever goal is set.
The Executive Summary of the aforementioned report states “Decatur faces significant problem property challenges. Decatur’s urban core is struggling with extensive vacancy (15 percent of housing units vacant … and there are thousands of vacant lots …) and substandard occupied rental and owner-occupied housing. Widespread poverty (federal poverty rate >24 percent), extremely weak housing markets …, and community frustration from decades of public or private disinvestment in urban core neighborhoods have lead prospective homebuyers and other owners to avoid investing in the urban core and seek options on the outskirts of Decatur or outside the city.”
Furthermore, the challenges currently faced in the urban core may at least partially be a result of discriminatory policies. As per a map illustrating redlining provided by the Central Illinois Land Bank Authority, “banks historically classified 75% of the City’s urban code neighborhoods as ‘declining’ or ‘hazardous’ – which prevented residents of those neighborhoods from obtaining loan to invest in homes.” As stated in the report by the Center for Community Progress, there is a need for “… recognition that communities of color, and in many cases predominately Black communities, are those most impacted by problem properties. Without a deep understanding of how a legacy of racist laws and policies have harmed communities of color in Decatur, code enforcement risks compounding the problem.”
Unfortunately, the scale of the challenges urban core residents face is continually understated. While the city’s demolition list stood at 183 at the end of November, as per the report by the Center for Community Progress, “some estimates of properties that would qualify for demolition are closer to 1,500.” At $15,000 per demolition x 1,500 properties, the city needs $22.5 million for the removal of unsafe structures, a dollar amount far more than budgeted and for which there no known funding source to achieve in a timely manner.
Finally, data that the city council can use to develop an appropriate budget to solve our problems is continually provided in an untimely manner. Even though the report was published in June 2022, the report was not provided to the city council until after the city’s 2023 budget was approved and three days before our study session. Would you prefer to know how your son or daughter is doing in school before you get a final report card or would you like to know during the semester so that you can do something about it?
There was approximately $20 million in the 2023 budget that could have been devoted to additional neighborhood revitalization efforts had the report been provided to the council prior to its budget discussions. I hope the city council will make the budget amendments necessary to provide the funds needed to improve our urban core neighborhoods sooner rather than later.
PLEASE EXPRESS YOUR VIEWS AT THE NEXT CITY COUNCIL MEETING
The next study session of the Decatur City Council will be Monday, January 9. Meetings take place at 5:30 PM in the council chambers located on the third floor of the Decatur Civic Center (1 Gary K. Anderson Place). Free parking is available in the lot immediately south of the entrance. Citizens are encouraged to attend meetings and express their views. Citizens are allotted 3 minutes per person near at the end of each study session.
CITIZENS ARE ENCOURAGED TO PROVIDE FEEDBACK TO CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS
If you would like to discuss city issues with a council member, phone numbers and email addresses for each council member can be found at the following link: https://www.decaturil.gov/mayor-and-council/council/.
AGENDAS FOR CITY COUNCIL MEETINGS ARE AVAILABLE ONLINE
An agenda and information about each agenda item for each city council meeting can be found at: https://www.decaturil.gov/mayor-and-council/council-meetings/.