By James Fuller
August 28, 2011
Christine Winter lives on an upscale block just outside of St. Charles, but you wouldn't know it by looking out her window. She shares a view many suburban residents count as part of their landscapes — thanks to the thousands of homes left vacant when the housing bubble burst.
“It's the house from hell,” Winter said. “It's out of control.”
Winter said the home has stood empty for about two years now. Last winter, the pipes in the house burst causing flooding so rampant the fire department had to come out. Through the windows, the interior of the home now appears to be a Petri dish of various forms of mold. On the outside, weeds and other greenery hearken an environment Tarzan might enjoy. But it's the hidden danger that has Winter the most upset.
In the back yard of the abandoned home sits an uncapped well plunging at least 12 feet into the earth. The unmown grass obscures its location, making it a booby trap for all children who play in the unfenced cul-de-sac of yards.
“It's like a manhole, but it's wide open,” Winter said. “Someone is going to get hurt eventually.”
The property is even more of a neighborhood frustration because of the home that is its other, non-Winter, neighbor. That home also stood vacant until recently.
The difference, Winter said, is the bank or lending company in charge of that house kept up with the mowing and maintenance even as it stood vacant. It never became a value-draining menace despite its similar foreclosure history. Now it has a new family caring for it.
It's the different foreclosure paths troubled properties take — and the proactive policing communities do — that can make the difference between a vacant home that's kept up and will be bought, and an abandoned property that will blight the whole neighborhood for months or years.
Tom Feltner is vice president of the Woodstock Institute in Chicago. The not-for-profit conducts research and pushes policy in the areas of fair lending, wealth creation and financial systems reform.
Right now, tracking the foreclosure crisis and its associated problems are a main focus for the organization. Feltner said there are thousands of properties in the suburbs and Chicago stuck in the foreclosure process.
“Often with those properties, there's not any clear responsibility,” Feltner said. “The borrower has moved on, but the loan servicer has had no responsibility to maintain that property.”
The result is a drain on the local governments through lost property taxes, as well as police and fire calls to homes that can become gang or party havens.
When a lender or loan servicer expects a big loss in completing the foreclosure process, a property can sit vacant for years in the limbo of an incomplete foreclosure. Feltner said communities must get better at holding lenders and servicers accountable.
The first step is identifying a property as vacant. Some suburban communities have a vacant property registration, but others don't. Kane County, for instance, just began its registration program a few months ago. As of the end of July, it only had about 25 dwellings registered. That contrasts with more than 200 property maintenance complaints this year.
“The toughest time period for us is still from the time owners vacate the house and before the bank actually taking complete ownership of the property,” said Kane County's Mark VanKerkhoff. “It takes a little bit of work to find out who owns it. So far, our program has been going probably about as we expected it to.”
When the county becomes aware of a unkempt, abandoned property, it can take legal steps to fine the responsible party to force compliance with the county's property maintenance standards. But the county doesn't have the resources to actually go out and mow a vacant yard if the fines don't spark action.
The problem with doing the mowing means incurring a cost that may not be repaid until much later. Such is the case in Naperville Township where Clerk Carol Bertulis is known as “The Weed Person.”
When a vacant property falls into disrepair in Naperville Township, Bertulis' job is to find the person responsible and hit them with a 10-day notice to cut the grass or remedy whatever problem is occurring. When the notice is ignored, Bertulis hires a private contractor to fix the problem. The costs of that vary with the size of the job. That cost is paid for with local tax dollars. Bertulis then puts a lien on the abandoned property so the township gets its money back when the property is sold. Bertulis said she feels fortunate she hasn't had to resort to using liens so far.
“We've just been able to work it out with the owners so far,” Bertulis said. “We work with homeowners' associations if needed. If they can't get it done, they come to me. Basically, I just let people know its going to be a lot cheaper for them to fix the problem than for us to put them through the legal process and come out and mow.”
Both Bertulis and VanKerkhoff said they've heard of neighbors getting fed up with the length of the complaint process and just mowing an abandoned yard themselves. VanKerkhoff said as long as a vacant property isn't specifically posted with a “No Trespassing” sign, that's a perfectly legal, and perhaps cheaper, solution.
Schaumburg officials told the Daily Herald earlier this year they are monitoring 410 vacant properties. Like Naperville Township, they've placed tax holds on them to pay for grass mowing and the cleanup of illegal trash and dumped cars. But the revenue netted by the tax hold and citations still isn't enough to keep within its weed-cutting budget. It's a cost that hit nearly $8,000 for the village last year.
Feltner, of the Woodstock Institute, said there's a few key ways to tackle the problem. First, every community should have a vacant property registry. Residents should report vacant properties to their local government, but those governments should also be proactive in communicating with the post office, local police and utility companies that already have extensive vacant property lists.
Next, local governments must take the time to go through the legal process and force the responsible parties to the surface. At that point they can be held accountable to local ordinances through fines, condemnation or whatever other measures local laws provide for.
“If there's no vacant property registry, there's is no way to know there is a problem,” Feltner said.
The other track for a solution to the vacant property problem is keeping properties from becoming vacant.
“If a property is already vacant, then a municipality should clearly move forward through their local enforcement process,” Feltner said. “You want to preserve value in the property for the investors and the neighbors. If the borrower is still in the home and seeking a loan modification, you want to make sure the proper interventions are in place. The best outcome for the property is for it never to go vacant.”
The home next door to Winter is beyond that point.
“The owners walked away and moved to California a long time ago,” Winter said. “Basically, they just screwed the neighbors. All of us have made calls to have something done with the property. They either don't call you back, or they come out and say there's nothing they can do about it.”
VanKerkhoff said neighbors have to be patient with the process. Letting the county know there is a problem is half the battle, he said.
“Just because a property isn't being mowed doesn't mean the county is not pursuing a remedy through our adjudication hearings,” he said. “We don't have a mowing program. However, residents who want to know the status of a property can call us and find out of someone has already lodged a complaint. If not, they can initiate a complaint and get the process started.”
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