Cook County passes vacant building ordinance similar to Chicago's (Chicago Tribune)

By Mary Ellen Podmolik

December 14, 2011

 

The Cook County Board on Wednesday passed a vacant building ordinance that largely mirrors one adopted by the city of Chicago and now the subject of a federal lawsuit.

 

The county measure, passed without opposition, requires a property's mortgagee to pay $250 to register buildings as vacant on a countywide registry.

 

A similar ordinance, with some tweaks and a $500 property registration fee, was passed by the Chicago City Council last month. Monday, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, filed a federal lawsuit against the city, charging that the city's rules encroach on its role as the sole regulator and supervisor of Fannie and Freddie, which own about 258,000 mortgages within the city of Chicago.

 

The suit seeks to exempt all those mortgages from the ordinance, and on Tuesday, Chicago officials said they plan to vigorously defend the ordinance in court.

 

Despite that legal challenge, county commissioners were eager Wednesday to continue the months-old effort to pass an ordinance at the county level and by the end of a public hearing, all of the commissioners asked to be added as co-sponsors to the measure first sponsored by Commissioner Bridget Gainer.

 

Gainer, C-Chicago, who noted that almost 10 percent of residential buildings within the county are vacant, said the federal agency's move not only goes against its own mortgage agreements but was unconscionable.

 

"When 75 percent of the mortgages in Cook County are owned by FHFA, allowing them to ignore their responsibilities to their own assets or our communities is impossible and a long-term disaster," Gainer told commissioners.

 

"It is a disgrace and it's shameful," county commissioner John Daley, D-Chicago, said of the FHFA's lawsuit against the city.

 

The county ordinance would apply to all areas of unincorporated Cook County, but its reach is expected to be significant because municipalities could enter into agreements with the county to enforce the ordinance within their own boundaries.

 

Many suburban communities, faced with a growing number of derelict, abandoned homes and a shortage of funds and manpower to care for those properties, have expressed a desire to sign such agreements.

 

David Mekarski, Olympia Field's village manager and a representative for the 42-community South Suburban Mayors and Managers and the 22-community South Suburban Housing Collaborative, said he expects a significant number of those municipalities to opt into the ordinance.

 

"This is the single most important tool to manage the biggest asset that we have in our community, which is our homes," Mekarski said after the hearing. "It really goes beyond managing vacant properties. It's essentially giving a tool to maintain a reasonable return on everyone's pocket. When a vacant property is in a community, it affects every neighbor up and down the block."

 

Among those speaking in support of the ordinance during the hearing was Rep. Karen Yarbrough, (D-Broadview), a sponsor Senate Bill 16, a foreclosure prevention measure that also sought to give municipalities more leverage in dealing with foreclosed properties. The bill  failed to gain enough traction to be passed.

 

"We need to get municipalities out of the property management game," she said. "We need to hold someone responsible, not municipalities, not counties…We need state action."

 

It was one of many comments in support of the measure by municipalities, consumer attorneys and community activists at a public hearing during the board's zoning and building committee. The lone mortgage servicer and lender to offer comments at the hearing, and support the measure, was JPMorgan Chase.

 

In January, Woodstock Institute, a Chicago-based public group reported that just within the city of Chicago in September 201, there were 1,900 properties where a  found that just within the city of Chicago in September 2010, there were 1,900 vacant properties where foreclosure proceedings were launched by mortgage servicers but never completed, leaving the properties in limbo and likely not secured or maintained.

 

Margaret Wooten, director of housing counseling programs at the Chicago Urban League, voiced strong support for the program, and told commissioners that foreclosure is not a problem confined to blighted neighborhoods. "It could happen right next door to you," she warned.

 

The ordinance would not apply to buildings that are vacant but being cared for, or under construction or rehab, the subject of a probate dispute, or in an ownership dispute.

 

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