Razing hell

The Rev. Stephen Henry stands in front of one of the hundreds of vacant properties in his Far South Side neighborhood. Since 2008, taxpayers have spent more than $750,000 boarding up and demolishing vacant properties in the five blocks surrounding his Roseland congregation, Mary Magdalene Missionary Baptist Church. Photo by Jason Reblando.




When Stephen Henry moved back to Roseland in 2009 to pastor the church he’d grown up attending, one of the first things he did was size up the neighborhood. The technology consultant-turned-pastor hadn’t lived there in more than two decades after moving to Atlanta.

“The neighborhood wasn’t so neighborly anymore,” said the 46-year-old. “It was just the ’hood.”

A vacant lot sat to the left of Mary Magdalene Missionary Baptist Church. Across the street were two crumbling homes covered with thin plywood. Down the block was a stretch of boarded-up homes. Police had recently found a woman dead in one of them.

Chicago taxpayers have spent $754,042 since 2008 boarding up and demolishing 61 homes in the roughly five square blocks around the church, according to an analysis by The Chicago Reporter. Overall, Chicago taxpayers have spent $31.6 million to remediate vacant properties since 2008. But no corner of the city has been as costly as the 34th ward, which includes Roseland.

A vast majority, 75 percent, of homes in the immediate neighborhood around Henry’s church were knocked down in the past 18 months. The area is roughly bounded by Wentworth Avenue to the west, State Street to the east and 105th and 111th places to the north and south. Each home that was razed cost taxpayers an average of $19,546, the analysis found. The financial burden of demolishing properties across the city has increased sharply since 2010, particularly in communities hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis, the analysis found. Roughly 63 percent of that spending occurred since 2010. It’s unclear how much the city has been able to recoup from property owners.

For every $10 the city has spent boarding up or tearing down a house, more than $1 went to cover the costs of securing or clearing structures from 264 properties in Alderman Carrie Austin’s 34th Ward on the Far South Side. That amounts to roughly 10 percent of all properties that demolition and board-up crews have worked on across the city during that time. In contrast, 43rd Ward Alderman Michele Smith’s is among those that have received the least attention. In that tony Lincoln Park ward, eight properties have been knocked down or secured at taxpayers’ expense since 2008.

Austin said the money spent dealing with the vacant housing stock in her ward, which includes Roseland and a thin stretch of Washington Heights, has been well-spent.  “What do you want me to do, leave them for a safety hazard for more rapes, more drug dealing, more crime?” she said. “There’s nobody stepping up in my ward to rehab these properties.”

Not everyone agrees. Chris Smith, the director of the Roseland office of the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, said there are a number of properties that could be turned around, particularly since some of the homes are priced so low—many are worth about as much as a Honda Civic—that they could be snapped up in cash transactions.

From a community development perspective, Smith said, demolition should be the measure of last resort. “We need people to move in there and pay some property taxes,” he said. “The question is, ‘How can we get the properties?’”

Until people start seeing value in the neighborhood, Henry said, attracting new homeowners will be a tough sell.

Parts of Roseland have been on the decline for more than a decade. Neighbors have their explanations as to why. Older residents were the last occupants in many of the homes. Some took out reverse mortgages and refinancing deals that came with predatory rates, and they were forced to move out when their payments ballooned. Others passed away and their children inherited the properties, letting them fall into disrepair while withdrawing the equity from the homes like an ATM machine through subprime loans. Other homeowners struggled to find work and couldn’t keep up with the bills, and their homes fell into foreclosure. Many ended up back in the hands of private banks but they’ve become the public’s problem.

One in three of the properties that taxpayers secured or knocked down in the five-block stretch around Henry’s church were reclaimed by a major lender, court records show. Scores more are in a legal limbo as banks have moved to foreclose on them. The longer properties sit vacant—buying scavengers’ time to strip items from the homes that can fetch a dollar—the more their value sinks.

Officials continue to struggle with enforcing the upkeep of the growing number of languishing properties, which was estimated to top 18,000 at the beginning of 2011, according to the Woodstock Institute, a Chicago-based public interest research group.

In July, the Chicago City Council tightened the rules around maintaining vacant properties. Now, any party with an ownership stake is accountable for paying the cost of securing and maintaining vacant homes and buildings—including lenders and management companies named on their mortgage notes. In making it more expensive to hold onto a vacant home, aldermen hope that lenders and investors will sell the properties quicker.

Thus far, the ordinance hasn’t made it easier for Henry’s congregation to identify owners who are willing to make a quick sale. He works with an ad hoc group of neighbors to figure out who owns the vacant homes surrounding the church, which sits at the corner of 109th and Princeton streets. He never imagined that his ministry would revolve around real estate.

“Everyone has given up on this community like there is no hope, no value,” he said. “I’m like, ‘No. There’s potential.’”

In late September, the congregation bought one of the vacant homes across the street from the church. Henry agreed to pay $13,000 in delinquent taxes and $6,000 for the property. He’s trying to buy another property next door, but is struggling to identify the owner.

With a dearth of new mortgage lending making its way back to the area, local groups, including the Roseland chapter of Neighborhood Housing Services, are also trying to address the properties one at a time.

The nonprofit recently rehabbed two foreclosed homes just a block away from Henry’s church. Because the homes hadn’t sat vacant for too long, they were in good condition. The cottages near 108th and State streets were bought from the city for $1 and rehabbed with a down payment through the federally backed Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

The nonprofit intends to sell the properties. The entire block helped move the process along, Smith said. In the six months before the properties went on the market, neighbors cleaned up the trash and weeded vacant lots. “This is their home. This is their neighborhood,” Smith said. “They know they have to step up if they want to turn things around.”



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