Flood-ravaged properties home to criminal activity

Chris Green and Sean F. Driscoll

In a quiet neighborhood just north of Keith Creek, a car will park curbside at night and wait. Moments later, another car will pull up behind it, a brief conversation will take place, and both cars quickly drive off.

“They’re doing drug tradeoffs,” Sixth Avenue resident Loraine Murphy said. “We never used to see that before.”

Murphy’s street and the Churchill Park neighborhood have changed drastically since two devastating flash floods occurred on Labor Day 2006 and Aug. 7, 2007. Drive on Sixth Avenue between 12th and 13th streets today and you’ll find just as many vacant homes as you will occupied ones.

Many homes on Sixth and Seventh avenues were damaged by floodwaters from Keith Creek, which runs parallel between Sixth and Seventh avenues. Water filled basements up to rafters, submerging water heaters, furnaces and washers and dryers and even crept onto the main floors of some homes.

The city is purchasing homes in the floodplain that sustained damages greater than 50 percent of the value of the home. Flood-control measures center on widening the creek basin, tearing down homes to make room for green space and enhancing the creek corridor with a walking path. But demolishing the homes and making those other improvements hinge on federal grants. City officials say they’ll soon know whether those dollars will come and how soon the work will wrap up.

Awaiting grant money

Rockford Local Development Corp., a private nonprofit that specializes in lending money to businesses, is purchasing homes for the city using a $10 million line of credit from Associated Bank. City officials hope the loan, which is due in June 2009, will be paid off by federal flood-relief grants. If the grant applications are denied, however, the city will sell bonds and use its own cash to pay the debt.

Brian Eber, the city’s storm-water manager, said 94 homes have been purchased, and the $10 million has been exhausted. About a dozen homes have offers outstanding, but those deals will have to wait for grant funding or other financing.

The properties were purchased at preflood values, and all the sales were voluntary transactions. Once the program is completed, the city will raze the homes.

“The property is deed-restricted, so nothing else can be built on the lots,” Eber said.

A few homes that are in particularly bad shape may be demolished this year, but Eber said wide-scale demolition won’t happen until after the city determines whether the federal grants will come through.

The city applied for two Federal Emergency Management Agency grants in January, Eber said. One of those grants, a predisaster mitigation program, could be worth up to $3 million. City officials hope to learn within a month whether that grant will materialize. Another hazard mitigation grant could be worth up to $12 million, but FEMA’s review of that application has been delayed because of the demand for federal assistance in the wake of flooding along the Mississippi River.

“If the weather, as she seems to be doing, works in our favor, we should have the (results) relatively soon,” Eber said.

The city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also are doing a flood mitigation study along Keith Creek. Survey work is finished, and Corps engineers are creating a computer model of the creek to determine where flood threats persist. The model should be done in five or six months; then the city can start applying for grants to alleviate those threats.

‘Inviting vandalism’

Eber said the RLDC has been mowing the lawns and taking out trash to keep the vacant residential properties in good shape, and patrols by police and private security have helped keep crime low. The homes purchased by RLDC were boarded up, Eber said, and the boards were painted white to minimize the appearance of an abandoned property.

Sixth Avenue residents Gina Franklin and Tom DeVoe said vandals still are breaking into several of those homes. They point to graffiti on the houses and the trash that litters yards as evidence.

“We’ll call police and tell them there is somebody inside a vacant house. Sometimes they’ll come, sometimes they won’t,” Franklin said. “It’s kind of scary to sit out here.”

DeVoe said the sooner the houses are razed, the better.

“If the city owns them, and that’s their plan, what are they waiting on? It seems to me if they don’t tear them down, they’re just inviting vandalism.”

Police are keeping a watchful eye on the area until the homes are demolished, said Deputy Police Chief Mike Booker.

“That’s an area that receives extra patrols on a routine basis,” Booker said. “We’ve discussed it with the area squads at our beat meetings. We have a list of all the houses the city has acquired, and we provide extra patrols down there.

“I do know there was concern about a drug dealer being down there, and we made a drug arrest.”

Chris Green can be reached at (815) 987-1241 orcgreen@rrstar.com; Sean F. Driscoll can be reached at (815) 987-1346 orsdriscoll@rrstar.com.