By Darnell Little
February 22, 2009
The children who live on West Wilcox Street won’t go out at night for
fear of 12 vacant graystones that draw criminals to their block. In
Rogers Park, a half-empty 39-unit condo building on Farwell Avenue has
become a hide-out for squatters and feral cats.

Two streets that have little in common—Wilcox on the West Side and
Farwell on the North— illustrate the latest chapter of the housing
crisis: a surge in vacant homes that is sinking property values and
blighting swaths of the city.

As foreclosures soar to historic levels, the infection has spread
beyond places of perennial concern, such as West Garfield Park and

Condo ghost towns replete with granite and stainless steel have
emerged on stretches of the North Side, leaving a pox of hollow
buildings dotting the landscape.

"We’re kind of in an unprecedented moment," said Philip Ashton, an
assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. "A lot of the research that is on the table relates to a
completely different world."

In the past when banks auctioned off foreclosed homes, buyers lined
up to snatch real estate at bargain prices. But given the states of the
housing and credit markets, almost 99 percent of homes lost to
foreclosure in 2008 went back to lenders—a total value of $1.9 billion
in Chicago, according to data provided by the Woodstock Institute, a
Chicago-based think tank.

Banks don’t want to be landlords, so the properties usually sit
vacant until they sell. And very few are selling. Census data show that
from 2000 to 2007, the number of vacancies in Chicago jumped 82 percent
to a record 165,679 housing units.

"It’s a concern for the same reason the subprime lending problem
should have been a concern five years ago," said Geoff Smith, vice
president at the Woodstock Institute. "There are certain communities
that are more at risk, but if it goes unchecked … it has the
potential to spiral and affect all parts of the economy."

And as 2008 foreclosure filings wind their way through the system
and 2009 heaps its damage on top, the problem is likely to get worse.
One national estimate says 2009 will bring another 2.7 million

Chicago recently was awarded $55.2 million from the federal
government to combat vacancies as part of the nearly $4 billion
Neighborhood Stabilization Program, more than any other city in the
nation. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced an additional $2
billion for the program.

The city plans to redevelop more than 1,500 homes in the 25
community areas most severely affected, all on the South and West

Given the glut of unsold homes, critics say the plan errs by
putting more houses on the market rather than rental units. The plan
also ignores the North Side, where some neighborhoods suffered a 150
percent spike in foreclosures last year.

"They have redlined the North Side," said Brian White, executive
director of the Lakeside Community Development Corp. in Rogers Park.
"It leaves neighborhoods like ours on the short end, and we’re
competing with areas like Chicago Lawn, when there should be solutions
for both."

The city counters that it selected neighborhoods based on criteria from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"Condos do present a different challenge, but it still is not at
all at the same scale," said Ellen Sahli, first deputy in Chicago’s
Department of Community Development.

Not at the scale of neighborhoods such as Humboldt Park, where more
than half of the loans issued in 2006 and 2007 qualified as subprime
and unemployment hovered around 11 percent in 2007, according to city
data. There, gangs often take over abandoned homes, peeling back the
bowed plywood from the windows to store drugs and set up shop,
residents say.

"When we first moved over here it was a nice, mixed neighborhood,"
said Barbara Carter, who has lived on her block more than 20 years and
has seen some of the neighborhood’s elderly lose their homes. "Now,
it’s been so many shots [fired] at my house I ain’t got fingers to

The city spent nearly $5 million in 2008 boarding up and destroying
vacant buildings, according to the Department of Buildings, but its
number of vacant homes remains elusive. To date, the city has
registered more than 3,600 vacant buildings, though it estimates the
number is closer to 12,000. The city does not track vacant units.

"While it was a problem for a long time, there is no question that
it’s grown more acute," Buildings Commissioner Richard Monocchio said.

In Chicago Lawn, hardly a block has been spared. People are walking away from homes they can neither sell nor afford.

"We used to be able to say to people: I’m sorry you can’t afford
your house anymore and you have to sell it. And they’d cry and call a
broker, and they would sell it," said Michael Reardon, a director at
Neighborhood Housing Services. "Now we say: We’re sorry, you can no
longer afford your house, you’re going to have to sell it. By the way,
you can’t sell it."

When the homes do sell, they can go for half of what neighbors paid, destroying property values.

But property taxes don’t fall with property values. Simply put, the
tax levy has increased over the last seven years regardless of home
prices, according to Cook County records.

Property values were climbing a few years ago in West Garfield Park
as people looked for the next hot spot. Now, the last remnant of those
livelier times on West Wilcox Street is the block club’s beat-up sign
banning loud music.

"It’s a lot of kids that stay on this block, but at night they’re
afraid to go out," said Rashaun Woods, 28, standing on his
grandfather’s porch. "I don’t like to walk alone late at night either."

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