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With warm weather comes grass-mowing season. That's when Forest Park's empty houses - foreclosed, repossessed by the bank and abandoned - begin to stick out on the block.
"We have had at least five houses that have foreclosed in the past 5 years," said Jill Wagner, who lives in the 1500 block of Marengo. "I mowed the neighbor's for almost a full summer before it was picked up [by the village]."
Forest Park has had 245 dwellings fall into foreclosure since 2008, according to village records. It is unclear precisely how many homes are currently in foreclosure. Some homes, although empty, are being remodeled and will soon have new owners. Many are also condominiums and, therefore, problematic conditions are less obvious. But some houses fall into disrepair and become eyesores.
A decrepit, empty house in the 900 block of Beloit Avenue sits across from Field-Stevenson school, paint peeling, porch sagging, warning stickers plastered to the front door. Two other houses are vacant a block north and two others are empty to the south, but their exteriors are in better shape.
The story behind this house though is not unique. According to public records, the former owner of the home bought the house for $80,000 in 1994, and then took out several home equity loans totaling $129,000 over the next 10 years. In bankruptcy documents filed in 2008, the owner lost a near-$80,000 income in one year and earned only $18,000 the next. The former owner had more than $40,000 in credit card bills. The house was foreclosed by Chase Home Financial in 2008 and sold to Freddie Mac in 2009. Freddie Mac still controls the house.
The village responds to problem properties on a case-by-case basis, said Village Clerk Vanessa Moritz.
"Once the grass starts growing it's so apparent. We try to stay on top of these houses," she said. "We're lucky that we're small. In places like Cicero it's hard to keep on top [of code violations]."
If a bank or absentee owner is not addressing the problem, Moritz says the village will hire a service to winterize or cut the grass.
"We'll put a lien on the property to pay for the service," said Moritz.
Fire Chief Steve Glinke heads the Forest Park Department of Health and Safety, which is responsible for enforcing code violations. The police do not keep a list of empty houses, said Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas, but will respond to citizen complaints.
In Springfield, last year, state Rep. Karen Yarbrough helped introduce a bill to give municipalities more power to hold banks accountable for vacant properties. HB 1109 had two readings but was re-referred to the Rules Committee on Saturday. The legislation should unify the available responses municipalities can have regarding liens and maintenance of abandoned property. The proposed ordinance has been opposed by lobbyists working for bankers.
But locally, things may not change that much. "People report stuff and we are responsive. I report stuff myself," said Moritz. "We don't want the village to go to hell in a hand basket."