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Mortgage Crisis Opens Doors for Squatters

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Sometimes one person's misfortune can become another's opportunity. That's what's happened in a foreclosed building in Chicago. The owner abandoned the property and the bank has been unable to sell. Now several families are living there rent-free. From our West Side bureau, we report on how they get by.

Billy López, who asks that we not use his real name, doesn't have many options to heat his apartment. He's got a small space heater near the old couch he sleeps on. And he leaves a couple burners of his gas stove on high.

LOPEZ: I'm using the stove to keep warm. At night, I boil water to get a humidity feeling, because I have asthma so I have to boil water. 
MITCHELL: How many hours a day is the stove running?
LOPEZ: Well I've been running it for the last couple days...

López lives in a three-flat in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. An ex-girlfriend lives on the first floor.  She's the one who invited López to move into the basement space last year. She was a legitimate tenant, but now says she doesn't know who to pay rent to. No one in the building has paid any rent or utilities since the landlords moved out more than a year ago.

A deed filed with Cook County shows that one of the nation's largest banks foreclosed on the property months ago. A county court summons also names that bank and alleges 10 building-code violations. The squatters asked us not to report the bank's name.

Ambi.

Squatting successfully is tricky. López removes a piece of the basement wall to show me three natural-gas meters.

LOPEZ: The cops came over here one time. They came with the gas company.

López points to where the gas guys put a lock on the meters. But he says the tenants found a work-around.

LOPEZ: All we had to do was grab a pair of pliers, a plumbing pipe. And we just busted it out and turned everyone back on real quick.
MITCHELL: How long was the gas off?
LOPEZ: A couple hours.

And who's footing the bill?

LOPEZ: We're not paying. You guys are paying for the gas. Or the state or the city. I don't know who is.

What alarms Peoples Gas spokesman Rod Sierra is not just that people are freeloading.

SIERRA: Having someone use their gas burners on their stove to heat their apartment is extremely dangerous, carbon monoxide being the most dangerous thing. They are not properly vented to the outside of a house, like a furnace would be. They're putting at risk not only their only lives but anyone else who's in that building and anyone else in surrounding neighborhood.

Sierra says that's because many Chicago homes are built close together. So any fire could spread from one building to another.

It would be tough to keep track of how many people are squatting in foreclosed homes in the Chicago area. The Cook County Sheriff's Department and some local realtors say they've noticed more of the activity over the last year or so.

Ambi.

López is 48. He drinks a lot and smokes crack cocaine. He has a learning disability. And he's been in prison. He has to survive without much income.

López takes me out front to explain how he and the other tenants outwitted the city's Department of Water Management, which tried to shut off their supply.

LOPEZ: After they left, we got a couple people in the neighborhood and we turned it back on. So everybody has water right now. Everything's all good right now.

As for the electricity, López says ComEd has left the juice running. Because the bank that owns this building isn't keeping tabs on the place, López is free to receive a steady stream of visitors.

LOPEZ: Who's that?
CUSTOMER: Me. Answer. Sell me $5 worth.

López says he deals crack and marijuana.

LOPEZ: We got raided by police officers two times with canines for narcotics, drug trafficking. They never found anything. I don't keep my stuff down here.

López says he's not planning to live as a squatter forever.

LOPEZ: My kids want to take me out of here already.
MITCHELL: What do you want to do?
LOPEZ: I want to get the hell out of here and get a job. That's what I'm looking for. Whatever it takes to make an honest buck, I'd do it.

For now, though, López says he's staying put in the basement.

I'm Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.

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