The vacant home next to Deborah Jackson’s house has been an eyesore and magnet of blight for much longer than the Chicago homeowner would care to remember.
The roof of the empty townhouse, which is connected to Jackson’s, is shredded and caved in, causing water to leak through Jackson’s walls. Overgrown bushes and bramble peek over the property’s 4-foot fence, and possums and stray cats — instead of a nice family — live inside.
The derelict property, which has been vacant for the better part of 15 years, even appears to pose safety risks. Jackson’s granddaughter was once struck in the face by a detached piece of the home’s roof; sometimes trespassers pay unsettling visits; and the home is infested with snakes.
“Anytime I see people or have heard people, I would always call the police,” she said. “I’m looking at a jungle out here. I can’t sit on my patio. My grandkids don’t want to visit me because of the snakes.”
Unfortunately for Jackson, it’s not the only vacant property in close proximity that causes the 59-year-old schoolteacher distress. The home to her left and the two directly across the street from her in the foreclosure-ravaged South Side Chicago neighborhood of Pullman are also unoccupied.
Jackson’s story captures the heavy toll that vacant homes can take on their neighbors’ quality of life, and, at the same time, it highlights a reality that is galling to residents in hard-hit areas: Many such properties are often left to deteriorate by banks.
Since the housing collapse began, about 4 million Americans have lost their homes to foreclosure, resulting in a persistent glut of vacant homes on the market. Banks and other investors have managed to whittle down this supply somewhat in the past two years.
But according to online foreclosure marketplace RealtyTrac, there are still about 532,000 homes in the possession of banks or government-sponsored investors, and most of them are vacant and not listed. In addition, many of the 950,000 homes that RealtyTrac says are not yet repossessed, but still in some stage of foreclosure, have already been vacated.
The spotlight is usually on the economic impact of vacant homes: their tendency to drag down prices by selling at steep discounts and bloating housing supply. But sometimes less explored are the intangible effects of the empty properties on neighboring homeowners.
Magnets of blight and crime
Ed Jacob, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, said vacant homes can burden neighbors — some of whom are teetering on the brink of foreclosure themselves — and even put them in harm’s way.
“They become magnets of crime. They’ll get stripped of all their copper,” Jacob said of the vacant properties. “People use them to stash their drugs. It’s a huge psychological effect on homeowners who are hanging on.”
Jackson is no stranger to this phenomenon. Thieves looted a neighboring abandoned property to her left — a different home than the one that’s infested with snakes. Authorities later told her that there was a danger of a gas explosion happening at the home because the burglars had removed the furnace.
“They took everything that wasn’t nailed down,” she said.
Vacant properties can cast such a dark cloud over their communities that, when those homes are finally purchased, it’s sometimes cause for celebration.
Ihsan Atta of Brookfield, WI, recalled living next to a vacant home for months that was teeming with rodents and had overgrown bushes. People living in the neighborhood had become so put off by the decrepit property that when an investment firm snapped it up recently, neighbors rejoiced.
“One neighbor went by— I thought she was so happy, she was going to kiss me,” said Marty Boardman, chief financial officer of Rising Sun Capital Group, the home investor that bought the property.
Are banks to blame?
The blight of vacant properties is often the fault of the financial institutions that own or oversee them. Those financial institutions — whether it be banks or government-backed organizations such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration — sometimes fail to keep up on the properties’ maintenance.
“Often that means that the lawn’s not being mowed and maintenance isn’t being done on the property, and so it’s just going to be an eyesore in the neighborhood,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president of RealtyTrac.
Financial institutions sometimes turn a blind eye to vacant properties in their portfolios because they either don’t want to pay or can’t afford maintenance costs, experts say.
Labeling some financial institutions “slumlords,” consumer advocates and local governments have tried to hold their feet to the fire.
The City of Los Angeles brought a lawsuit against Deutsche Bank and U.S. Bancorp for allegedly failing to maintain some of their repossessed properties. Also, the National Fair Housing Alliance filed complaints with the Department of Housing and Urban Development against U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo for allegedly neglecting repossessed properties concentrated in minority neighborhoods.
If financial institutions sold foreclosures quickly, such properties would have less of a chance to grind on neighborhoods. But according to RealtyTrac, a repossessed property takes an average of 195 days to sell. And that’s after the average 378 days that a home takes to be repossessed by a bank, a period during which the home may be vacated by its former resident.
“Banks don’t know how to sell houses. They’re not very good at it,” said Boardman, whose company flips 30 to 50 homes a year. He pointed to a recent deal in which, he said, it took Chase two months to find an employee who actually had the authority to approve a sale.
‘My hands are kind of tied’
Jackson said that she recently convinced the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation to clear debris out of the snake-infested backyard of the abandoned property that abuts her home, a job that she said took three hours for 11 men to complete.
Ideally, either a bank or the city will repossess the home and rehabilitate it. Public records suggest that the home has not been repossessed yet, according to RealtyTrac. But that’s out of Jackson’s hands.
Meanwhile, she’s tried to contact banks tasked with caring for some of the other four vacant homes neighboring her so she can nudge them into tending to the properties. But that’s proved impossible so far.
Two of the vacant homes — much like 80 percent of all repossessed properties in the U.S., by RealtyTrac’s measure — are not listed, so she can’t identify their owners.
She said only one of the four vacant homes surrounding her has a for-sale sign, but no one has answered calls from her or her neighbors when they have dialed the phone number on it.
She’s also tried to determine the other properties’ owners by searching public records, but she has been unable to identify some of the deed-holders and unable to reach the others.
Many concerned neighbors, as well as capable buyers, have hit the same roadblocks, experts say. Bureaucratic ineptitude, profit-driven asset-management strategies and the overall complexity of a securities market where mortgages once traded hands like hot potatoes are all to blame.
Despite the challenges, Jackson said that she is determined to reach the owners of the blighted homes that have tainted her neighborhood for years.
“But right now my hands are kind of tied,” she said.