Every six months, Dave McDowell rounds up a group of volunteers, hands them legal pads and pens, and sends them out to log the addresses of every vacant property they can find within a roughly three-square-mile area on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
“It’s hard to develop a solution if you can’t identify the problem,” says McDowell, a senior organizer with the nonprofit Southwest Organizing Project. The problem is that there is a glut of vacant buildings--somewhere between 500 and 600--from 51st and 74th streets between Western and Kedzie avenues. They began piling up five or so years ago, and nobody seems to have a handle on where they’re located or what conditions they’re in--not even city officials, who are tasked with making sure the properties are maintained.
In 2011, the Chicago City Council amended the vacant property ordinance to require an expanded class of owners--largely banks, investors and management companies they hire--to follow the city’s existing rules on registering and maintaining their vacant properties. The intent was to make it more expensive for them to sit on the vacant properties indefinitely so that they wouldn’t drag down the property value of entire neighborhoods.
But more than two years after the amendments took effect, thousands of the properties are still flying under the city’s radar. And that raises questions about whether lenders, investors and others who own thousands of uncharted abandoned properties are getting off the hook.