By Steve Hahn

May 5, 2010

Empty houses are hard to survey, but that’s the challenge facing census workers in the Chicago area, where foreclosures and vacancies are weighing down response rates. This isn’t just a predicament for the U.S. Census Bureau, it’s a problem for these communities and their residents. Each uncounted resident could cost Chicago $1,200 per year.

The latest figures from the Woodstock Institute show that there were 9,302 completed foreclosure auctions in the six-county Chicago region during the first quarter of 2010. That’s up 56 percent from the same quarter a year ago, and up 79.3 percent from the fourth quarter of 2009.

This marked the most foreclosure auction activity in that area since the housing disaster began in 2006.

For the city of Chicago in particular, 3,489 completed foreclosure auctions took place in the first quarter, up 59 percent from the first quarter of 2009 and up 113 percent from the previous quarter.

In addition, the Department of Commerce’s Census Bureau recently announced that the Chicago metropolitan statistical area (which includes Naperville and Joliet) had a homeowner vacancy rate of 3.2 percent in the first quarter of the year. That makes it the MSA with the 16th highest homeowner-vacancy rate of the 75 areas covered by the report.

These housing woes only fuel the potential setbacks that low census participation rates will bring to the Chicago area.

A recent Chicago Tribune article highlighted the plight that census workers were facing in North Lawndale, a community nearly 30 miles west of the Loop. Kim Jackson, executive director of Lawndale Christian Development Corp., said there was a transition of 20 percent of North Lawndale’s 43,000 residents from the 2000 census, thanks to “the recessions, loss of jobs, loss of homes.” It means that displaced residents will be hard to track down for the 2010 census, partly because they might not want to be counted as members of the households they’re staying in, for fear of losing governmental aid.

According to the Woodstock Institute, 53 foreclosure auctions were completed in North Lawndale in the first quarter — up 17.8 percent from the same quarter last year. North Lawndale’s census tracts had census participation rates in the 41 to 50 percent range as of this past weekend, notably lower than the 63 percent rate the city of Chicago had.

Community leaders in North Lawndale are working hard to make sure that its residents aren’t undercounted like Chicago was in the 2000 census. That cost the city an estimated $193 million over the last 10 years, according to the Tribune article, which also notes that the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that each uncounted person could cost Chicago $1,200 per year for the next decade.

Imperiled financial aid means more than just missed dollars – quality of education, safe neighborhoods and homeowner assistance are all at stake for citizens of North Lawndale, Chicago and beyond.

“Accurate data reflecting changes in your community are crucial in apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and deciding how more than $400 billion per year is allocated for projects like new hospitals and schools,” the U.S. Census Bureau notes on its website. “That’s more than $4 trillion over a 10-year period for things like new roads and schools, and services like job training centers.”

Other Chicago communities like Englewood, Austin and New City are, like North Lawndale, experiencing a correlation between high foreclosure activity and low census-participation rates, while others like Hegewisch, Edison Park and Forest Glen, which have been relatively safe from the foreclosure mess, can boast of higher participation rates.

The sad irony of the situation in Chicago is all too clear: The help that so many residents in difficult situations would welcome might not be delivered to them in sufficient supply for the next 10 years, thanks to the very circumstances they’re in.

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