Vacant homes policy brings Chicago big cash

May 3, 2012

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(WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
A change in Chicago's housing ordinance required lenders to register vacant properties if the owners could not be found.

An initial review suggests that Chicago’s revised vacant property ordinance is bringing in a lot cash to the city, and that it’s helping city officials keep better count of the number of homes sitting vacant. The statistics, contained in a letter from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd) were the city’s first quarterly report on the effectiveness of the ordinance since it went into effect in November.

The numbers show that Chicago collected $619,000 in fines from financial institutions during the first quarter of 2012. That’s more than double what the city collected in the same period last year. The number of vacant homes that are officially registered with the Department of Buildings also swelled. Last year 2,833 vacant properties were registered between November and April. Emanuel’s letter stated: “In the past six months, with the new ordinance, the number of vacant properties that became registered with the City nearly doubled to 4,436.”

“I think the ordinance did what it was supposed to do,” said Dowell, “which was to make the banks and other financial institutions responsible for the properties that they’re responsible for in our neighborhoods.”

Dowell spearheaded the effort at City Hall to make lenders responsible for the costs of securing and maintaining vacant homes when their owners disappear. The changes invited a federal lawsuit that the City is now fighting, filed by the Federal Housing Finance Agency on behalf of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

“Holding financial institutions accountable will ultimately lead to safer and stronger communities throughout the City of Chicago,” wrote Emanuel.

Under the revised ordinance, lenders are required to pay $500 to register vacant properties with the city’s Department of Buildings when their owners fail to, and to pay between $500 and $1000 per day for violations of the city code.

Still, the preliminary analysis shows that the ordinance may need more time before Chicago has a full grasp of the size of the vacant property problem caused by the foreclosure crisis. A study last year by the Woodstock Institute estimated more than 18,000 Chicago homes are vacant.