Empty houses make bad neighbors (Chicago Tribune)

By Joseph Ruzich

May 28, 2010

Oak Forest resident Len Zabawa, 65, keeps his lawn neatly trimmed. But the yard on his neighboring property –– a foreclosed home vacant for more than a year –– has become an overgrown eyesore.

"The yard is starting to look like a jungle," Zabawa said. "I think it's impossible to run a lawn mower over it now. It's a real shame that nobody takes care of it."

Once known for its tidy working-class communities, the south suburbs have been hit hard by the collapse of the housing market, leaving the region dotted with foreclosed and vacant properties. The area has the highest vacant home rate in the state, according to the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association.

There were nearly 9,000 foreclosure filings in south and southwest suburban Cook County in 2009 and about 70,000 in the six-county Chicago area, according to the Woodstock Institute, a Chicago-based think tank. The burden of taking care of those foreclosed and vacant properties, in some cases, has fallen into the hands of taxpayers.

Park Forest and Oak Forest have each set aside about $25,000 just to maintain overgrown grass on properties. And southwest suburban Romeoville budgeted about $15,000 to cut grass and maintain blighted properties.

"The village is feeling the impact," said Park Forest Community Development Director Lawrence Kerestes. "We want to keep our community nice. But to do so, the village has to spend more money for maintenance and the demolitions of homes."

Kerestes said Park Forest spends about $10,000 to demolish a house. Before the housing market collapse, he said, the village would demolish an average of two or three properties per year. Three properties have been demolished in May alone, he said.

Village officials said they try to recoup some of the money by putting liens on the property.

In Romeoville, most residents seem satisfied by the village's efforts to keep foreclosed properties neat. The village has dedicated a full-time staff member to contact banks to urge them to maintain their properties.

"Overall the banks seem to be cooperative," said Mayor John Noak. "The problem is sometimes banks don't even know what they own."

Last June, the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association created a housing collaborative to address foreclosure issues. The collaborative was recently able to secure $9 million in federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds for 11 south suburban communities, including Ford Heights, Dolton, Harvey, Hazel Crest, Lansing, Lynwood, Park Forest, Phoenix, Richton Park, Robbins and South Holland.

The money will be used to rehab and maintain homes.

"Foreclosures know no boundaries," said Janice Morrissy, director of housing initiatives for the regional collaborative. "I think municipalities have realized that it is important to maintain the homes. When homes start to deteriorate, so does the neighborhood. Then the property levels begin going down."

Morrissy said the organization also hosts "keep your home" events to inform people facing foreclosure of their options. Community leaders also share ideas to try to address the problem as a whole.

In Oak Forest, each vacant building must be inspected by the city's code enforcement officer. An ordinance requires the building owner to pay a $500 inspection fee and register annually for another $200 fee. Owners must have insurance ranging from $500,000 to $2 million. Infractions cost owners $100 to $750 daily.

In addition, buildings may not be boarded up for more than three months and each owner must submit a plan for fixing up the building or demolishing or selling it.

Jim Berger, code enforcement officer for Oak Forest, said banks and owners are beginning to cooperate with the city's maintenance rules and paying fines.

"They're getting better," said Berger. "In 2008, the banks didn't have a plan in place. But now they're actually starting to send people out to cut the grass and maintain their properties."

As for the blighted home next to Zabawa, Berger said the city is trying to find the owner. In the meantime, officials plan to cut the lawn soon.

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