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Q&A: Community development director gives update on demolitions in South Side and East Bluff neighborhoods

Peoria Community Development Director Joe Dulin.
Camryn Cutinello
Peoria Community Development Director Joe Dulin.

Peoria Community Development Director Joe Dulin wants to see new housing units built in Peoria's South Side and East Bluff Neighborhoods.

First, he said, the city needs to demolish hundreds of vacant buildings to make way for developers to build new units. Dulin said the goal is to create more affordable housing options for people in Peoria, while also putting more properties back onto the property tax rolls.

WCBU's Camryn Cutinello got a progress update from Dulin on these demolitions, and how a state grant will help the city accomplish them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What will the city use the grant from the state for?

Joe Dulin: So the City of Peoria found out about a week ago that the Illinois Housing Development Authority, which is kind of state government branch, awarded the City of Peoria through a competitive grant process $712,000, specifically to be used for demolition of vacant and blighted buildings in 61605 and 61603. So it will allow us in 2024 to take down an additional probably about 70 to 80 houses to the 50 to 70 houses we usually take anyway. So it really kind of allows us an opportunity to attack some of that blight that's existed over the years in those communities to really aid and assist our efforts over the last few years.

How many properties in Peoria would you say right now need that demolition service?

Dulin: That's a really tough question to ask because it's a number that's always changing. Houses go abandoned or vacant, people move in, people rehab them. Just going off properties when we've done an inventory over the last six months of boarded up houses and vacancies across the city, you're in that kind of probably 600-800 property range of what we kind of have left after some more aggressive demolition efforts over the last five years. The city only currently owns probably about 10 to 15 houses that still need [to be demolished], but our staff is constantly going through a process to acquire demo, acquire demo, acquire demo. So, you know, we'll definitely spend this money over the next few years to get that down. But right now, you know, it's more of a matter of just the continual flow and having our staff dedicated to that.

And how much does it cost the city to have these properties?

Dulin: So, the average demo cost could be anywhere from about $12 to $18 thousand. And then sometimes it just really depends on the size of the house and the footprint, if it has a basement, things like that. And then if it does have some asbestos siding, or other environmental remediation that needs to happen, the price can go up about 50% from there.

How do you determine with a property if you pursue rehabilitation versus demolition?

Dulin: Our main goal with every property we ever obtain is to rehab it. The unfortunate reality is by the time the city obtains property, it's too far gone, where it would take $100, $120, $130 thousand to rehab it. Putting on a new roof by itself could take $15 to $20 thousand. Other cosmetic repairs and everything with the property, it just really adds up. So most of the time, it's just not a smart decision to rehab the property. It really is about tearing it down and trying to attract new development to that area.

I think we've seen a lot of good success over the last year with some projects that have been announced. Peoria Opportunities Foundation in partnership with Pivotal Housing, was awarded an Individual Development Account (IDA) tax credit project. And so they're going to do about a $20 million project in the South End for housing and add about 70 new affordable housing units, specifically on property we've acquired over the last few years. So we're hoping that process just keeps repeating itself over the next few years to really add not only housing back to these areas, but putting more properties back into the property taxes, and then also creating quality, affordable housing for the residents when we tear something down.

You have been using American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds for some of this work, what's going to happen after those funds expire?

Dulin: We were very lucky that our city council saw the importance of this. And so they in 2022, 2023 and 2024, next year, budgeted a million dollars each year, specifically for demo. So, there was $3 million dedicated specifically for demolition in the City of Peoria on residential houses. In addition to about the $2.4 million we spent on commercial properties, Harrison School and McKinley School. So over the last, you know, this three, four-year stretch, we're going to see about $6 million go into demolition of property.

So it's a very good question, what happens next? I think grants like the IDA grant are good backup plans for when the ARPA money does go away, that we'll continue to pursue with the state of Illinois, with the federal level, trying to get as much funding as possible. And then, you know, if it gets to the point down the road, when there's no grants and opportunities, that's gonna be a decision our council is going to have to make of how close are we to getting all these houses gone? How much do we want to contribute to? Historically in the general fund, when we haven't had the ARPA funds or other grant fundings, we contribute about $300 to $400 thousand each year to do it.

What is the strategy in place, particularly for Peoria South Side, to sell these lots?

Dulin: So really, the thing that we see that makes them attractive is when you can get half a block or three fourths of a block where they're specifically together, and that's where you can work to attract some developers to apply for those tax credit deals from IDA, or hopefully some private investment in the future. And so the goal is to continue to kind of get them together when we can to attract... that just becomes more attractable to developers. And I think we'll continue down that path. And the reality with the south end is, it's lost population from census to census to census, and part of that is us contributing to the issue of tearing these houses down. Of course, there's less housing units when we're doing this demolition work. It needs to be done. But now we need to come back and replace it with additional housing and I think that's what we saw with the [Phoenix Opportunities Foundation] project and hopefully in the next few years, we'll see more projects like that come forward.

The city has also pursued selling side lots to individuals. What kind of success have you seen with that?

Dulin: One of the things the land bank has done is when we own a vacant lot, that means we have to cut them. And you know, you don't think that very often, how big of expense that could be. But when you're paying a contractor to cut the grass, cut a vacant lot, 14 to 16 times a year, and you're talking 1,000-1,200 lots, it can add up. So, we have been able to unload about 50 to 100 lots to the right candidate for you know, you live next to it, or you're in a property next to it, you haven't had any code violations with us, you just want to expand your footprint. The lot probably isn't big enough for us ever really to develop it, or it's at one lot on the block. So we've seen, you know, neighbors are very happy when they can have a bigger yard.

Have you or the city council looked at having something in place where it would require affordable housing in any of these lots?

Dulin: Some communities have that. I don't think we've had a policy discussion about how that would happen. I think, specifically in new development, sometimes there is a requirement that that happens. We really haven't had a policy discussion. We just had luck being able to attract a multitude of affordable housing developers without that. I mean, if you look at some of the other, the East Bluff just saw a big affordable housing project last year. Phoenix Manor, which is specifically geared towards affordable housing for families experiencing homelessness in that same round that Peoria Opportunities Foundation got the grant they also received a grant and the city's contributing to that, so I think we've seen a lot of success focusing on that issue without having to make that a specific requirement yet.

Dulin said anyone interested in purchasing a side lot or reporting a vacant lot can call or email the City Peoria of Land Bank.

Camryn Cutinello is a reporter at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@ilstu.edu.