Shirley Worley considers the vacant building next door to be both an eyesore and a safety concern.
The Janesville woman lives next to an empty house on Linn Street, one of 101 properties originally listed on a vacant building registry compiled by the city.
The home has drab clapboard siding and a disheveled string of lights hanging above the door. The lawn is unraked, and in summer it is mowed only if Worley does it herself or if she complains to the city, she said.
Worley also remembers when someone tried to break into the house’s garage. Now she hopes the city—which recently took control of the foreclosed property—will take a more active role in finding a tenant.
Janesville’s vacant building registry gives the city an inventory of where such properties are. It also is intended to encourage those property owners to fix up their buildings and get them back on the real estate market.
A Gazette review of the registry shows the vast majority of properties are up to date with tax payments. And only a handful of entities—either banks or individual real estate developers—own multiple properties on the list.
Housing Services Director Kelly Bedessem said she wasn’t surprised that vacant building ownership was so dispersed or that most places hadn’t fallen into tax delinquency. If owners do fall far behind on taxes and lose their buildings to foreclosure, then the city typically takes control.
Now that it’s under city ownership, the Linn Street property meets an exemption and is no longer listed on the vacant registry. City officials now will work with the Wisconsin Partnership for Housing Development and see which foreclosed properties the organization wants to rehabilitate.
Those not fixed by the partnership can either be fixed by the city, sold as is or razed, Bedessem said.
Though no longer on the registry, the house on Linn Street was one of 19 Fourth Ward properties included in the original document. It should be noted that vacant buildings can be found throughout the city and are not limited to the Fourth Ward, a neighborhood that has fought negative stereotypes in the past.
Teresa McKeown, a Fourth Ward resident and chairwoman of a neighborhood committee, said she’s encouraged the city is trying to fill vacant buildings. Finding a homeowner or tenant reduces blight and criminal activity such as vandalism.
“When you see a new coat of paint, maybe some flowers planted, we’ve seen like a domino effect where other properties nearby start doing things outside their properties, too, to improve and fix them up,” McKeown said. “It’s almost contagious. You don’t want to be outdone by your neighbor. It’s really made an impact.”
She called the registry “a good first step” but hoped the city had a backup plan in case the registry didn’t go far enough. Marketing the properties more aggressively could help them get filled more quickly, she suggested.
Greg Wallace was searching the back seat of his work truck Thursday afternoon when approached by a reporter. Standing outside a home on South Jackson Street, Wallace said he doesn’t live in the Fourth Ward but has worked as a rental property maintenance man here for nearly a decade.
Some houses in the neighborhood have been vacant as long as he can remember. Wallace said it frustrates him to see rental units go unfilled, especially because he knows families who are homeless.
The unoccupied buildings vex city staff at a time when Janesville is mired in a housing shortage. Officials have repeatedly touted the need for more available housing at all income levels.
Bedessem said the city cannot realistically take control of properties if the owners pay taxes on time. When the city acquires a building via foreclosure, it has some funding to do small-scale rehabilitation. But the city doesn’t have the capacity to do much more.
Still, it doesn’t make sense to her why a property owner would keep a building off the market and avoid earning income from it.
“We’ve had that discussion multiple times within our office, where it appears to be relatively decent, and yes, it may need some work to make it marketable,” Bedessem said. “But we ask that often. Why would you just continue to pay taxes and sit on this place? Sell it. I wish I had the answer to that.”
McKeown said reliable residents can make the Fourth Ward more welcoming and friendly. And despite not living in the neighborhood, Wallace knows there would be no shortage of people clamoring to live in the neighborhood if the properties were fixed up.
“There’s good people out here who want to have an apartment. Landlords should take more pride,” he said. “This isn’t a bad neighborhood. It’s a beautiful neighborhood that just went down.
“But it can come back.”
Shannon Hebbe contributed to this story.