How DuPage County's 'clean and lien' program helps fix neighborhood eyesores

The property near Lombard was a neighborhood eyesore for years.

The rear and side yards of the residential lot along Sidney Avenue were littered with junk and debris, including gas cans, furniture, bicycles, pipes, water barrels and a large wood pile. A detached garage - containing three snowmobiles, two motorcycles and numerous other items - was so dilapidated it had collapsed.

"Eventually, what was holding the roof up was all the stuff inside," said Paul Hoss, DuPage County's planning and zoning administration coordinator.

County code enforcement officials repeatedly issued citations to try to force the homeowner to clean the property, but every time the 65-year-old was fined, he simply paid the money.

Finally, though, when the man was in front of a hearing officer, he was given a choice: face a $20,000 fine or voluntarily enter DuPage's Neighborhood Revitalization Program.

As part of the program - which officials say is unique to the region - DuPage works with property owners to repair or remove dilapidated or abandoned buildings in unincorporated areas. It also helps remove garbage, debris and hazardous materials.

Owners first are given a chance to fix problems on their own. If they don't, the county does the work and charges them. If the bill isn't paid, the county puts a lien on the property.

Officials say the "clean and lien" method eliminates eyesores, helps the environment and improves neighborhoods.

"It started as an abandoned property program," said county board member Sam Tornatore, development committee chairman. "We extended it to be a revitalization program."

The program, which was dormant for years, was rebooted in December 2016 after officials set aside $125,000 to fund it. DuPage also received a $250,000 grant from the Illinois Housing Development Authority to address neighborhood blight.

Thanks to the funding, DuPage could do more than use fines and fees to try to compel people to clean their properties. It now has the resources to take property owners to court and, if needed, do the cleanup work itself.

"Once we were able to give this program the teeth it needed, property owners began to realize we were no longer a paper tiger," Tornatore said. "We could do what we said we were going to do. It made people begin to comply."

To date, county officials have identified 84 properties eligible for clean and lien. Sixty-nine have been brought into compliance by their property owners.

Meanwhile, county public works crews have cleaned up four properties. In addition, the county cleaned one abandoned site and is selling it.

Tornatore said one benefit of the clean and lien approach is that it improves properties in cases where the owners are, for whatever reason, incapable of doing it themselves.

"A lot of these properties that are in disrepair belong to seniors who don't know how to do it (the cleanup) or don't have the people do it," he said. "They are overwhelmed by it."

That's what happened with the homeowner near Lombard.

It's estimated he paid more than $10,000 in fines over the past five years, but he never hired a contractor to clean his property.

"He didn't have the capacity to do that because there was just so much on the property," Hoss said.

When the county said it would handle the cleanup, the man accepted the offer.

Over a recent two-day span, roughly 10 county public works employees demolished the garage and removed eight Dumpsters of trash, including one of household hazardous waste.

Tornatore said such revitalization efforts make neighbors happy. "They're enthralled by the fact that their neighborhood is back to where it was when they first moved in," he said.

As for the property owner, Hoss checked in on him after the first day of the cleanup.

"He was outside," Hoss said. "He had mowed his front yard for the first time in two years. He was out there picking weeds. He basically said, 'I've got a new lease on life.'"

DuPage County works with property owners to repair or remove dilapidated or abandoned buildings in unincorporated areas through its Neighborhood Revitalization Program. Crews recently removed this garage, which had collapsed from neglect at a home near Lombard. Courtesy of DuPage County
Over a recent two-day span, a group of DuPage County public works employees demolished a garage and removed eight Dumpsters of trash from a property near Lombard. Courtesy of DuPage County
Junk and debris littered the rear and side yards of a property near Lombard until DuPage County cleaned the site as part of a "clean and lien" program. Courtesy of DuPage County
This is a view of the Lombard home's yard after DuPage County's cleanup efforts. Courtesy of DuPage County
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