A city ordinance is failing to keep owners of vacant properties in check

[Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison]




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.

As of March, an index of registered vacant buildings, maintained by the Chicago Department of Buildings, logged roughly 16,000 properties. That’s roughly half of the 34,000 vacant properties that were identified in June by DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies, which analyzed data compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Postal Service.

Mimi Simon, director of public affairs at the Department of Buildings, says the difference could be down to data collection methods. “A building identified as vacant according to post office and HUD does not mean it is a problem--there will be vacant homes when people are on vacation or if a home is for sale,” she says.

But the institute’s vacancy figures tally properties where no resident is collecting mail for 24 months.

In some cases, the city has issued fines for city code violations. Since 2011, property owners have been slapped with $7 million worth of fines for failing to provide adequate security alone, shows a Chicago Reporter analysis of the Chicago Department of Administrative Hearings data. A third of those properties were not on the city’s vacant buildings registry when the fines were issued.

These property owners were eventually found to be liable for $759,000, but they don’t seem to be taking the violations very seriously. They have paid less than 3 percent, or $24,000, of the penalties, the Reporter analysis shows.

Simon says the city remains committed in tackling the issue. The city’s ordinance was amended again last month, she says, so that only one inspection, instead of two, would be required before the city can force an owner to secure the building.

“We have inspectors out there every day working to make sure vacant buildings are in compliance and secure, and due to the success of this program, the building department was able to increase the number of inspectors focused on this effort,” she says.

The Woodstock Institute, a Chicago-based research and policy group, has been sounding the alarm for years about how destructive unregistered, vacant properties are.

Months before the city’s amended ordinance was passed, Geoff Smith, the group’s then-senior vice president, underscored the need for such legislation. “These troubled vacant homes have subjected already hard-hit communities to unsightly and potentially unsafe conditions for extended periods of time,” he said at the time.

Nearly three years later, the group continues to confront the same issue. “We’re still trying to get a handle on the scope of underreporting,” says Katie Buitrago, a senior policy associate.

It’s places like a stretch of South Honore Street, just off of West 51st Street, in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, where the long-term drag of vacancies is playing out.

Sprinkled between boarded-up buildings and vacant lots are a handful of tidy homes and a single-story church. They’re some of the few signs of life in this census tract, which is home to the largest number of vacant properties in Chicago, according to the Institute for Housing Studies.

But the well-maintained homes are outnumbered. They’re surrounded by 17 vacant lots and eight boarded-up buildings. And at the end of the block sits Cornell Park, where 13 people were shot in a drive-by shooting this fall.

McDowell says he and his volunteers aren’t just taking stock of the vacant properties around them. They’re trying to stem the tide of plummeting property values and violence that swept through streets like Honore, which sits less than six blocks east of the area he’s been surveying.

“We know that the housing crisis is weakening our neighborhood institutions,” McDowell says. “We can’t make a case for why we need additional investment in the neighborhood if we can’t identify the problem.”

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