By Lisa Donovan

December 14, 2011


Owners of problem vacant buildings across stretches of unincorporated Cook County will have to clean up their act or pay fines of up to $1,000 a day under a measure passed easily by the county board Wednesday.


Before the vote, elected leaders and community activists testified at a meeting of the board’s Zoning and Building Committee, sharing stories about how entire blocks of homes — and even commercial buildings — have emptied out as a result of the foreclosure crisis.


Left behind are buildings that become magnets for squatters and criminal activity and in many cases, delapidated property that drags down the value of neighboring parcels.


“One of our members lives near a vacant home. Her home was broken into, her belongings stolen and the vacant home across the street was used to store all the property,” said Braden Listmann, policy director at Action Now, a community organization working in the city and south suburbs.


The measure calls for owners or mortgage holders of problem buildings to register annually, pay a one-time $250 fee and follow guidelines for maintaining and securing their vacant homes or businesses. Strict maintenance guidelines include fines from $500 up to $1000 daily for failing to keep the grass and weeds below 10 feet, and not boarding up or otherwise securing the building.


Westchester Village President Sam Pulia told county commissioners the vacant properties pose a safety “risk” to first responders. “Police and fire department personnel responding to these situations where there may be a home that’s caught fire one or two times — it’s a safety issue,” Pulia said. “Police and firefighters are placed at risk.”


While no statistics are available for unincorporated Cook County, Tom Feltner, vice president of the non-profit Woodstock Institute, last year researched problem vacant buildings in the city, and identified 1,900 “red flag” vacant properties stuck in the foreclosure process — as of Oct. 2010. Those buildings got the distinction because of a “lack of effective ownership, oversight of maintenance and security,” and being at risk of falling into serious disrepair.


The cost to the city, which has to pick up the cost of taking problem properties to building court or even demolishing the buildings, is estimated at $36 million, according to Woodstock’s research.


Statistics show it can take 18 to 24 months for foreclosed abandoned properties to work their way through the court system and, ultimately, make it back into the real estate market.


A similar crackdown on such properties by the Chicago City Council, however, was recently challenged by the federal government. The Federal Housing Finance Agency this week filed a federal lawsuit to exempt properties with mortgages held by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, which the federal agency supervises and regulates. The agencies hold mortgages on more than 250,000 Chicago homes.


State Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood), testifying Wednesday, called the lawsuit a “territorial dispute” that the federal government shouldn’t have started.


“I’m troubled when we’ve come to the point where the federal government is actually sueing another unit of government over a territorial dispute over who gets to regulate vacant properties,” Yarbrough said. “Given the failures of Fannie May, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Finance (Agency) to protect Americans from the abuses that led to this crisis, you’d think they’d be working overtime to turn things around in communities that are suffering. Instead they’re paying their lawyers with our tax dollars to stop communities from doing anything to help.”


Despite the lawsuit, the county’s legal counsel has green-lighted the county measure, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office said.


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