Vacant property ordinances: Enforcement is key to success - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Vacant property ordinances: Enforcement is key to success

Eric Allix Rogers via Flickr

Throughout January and February, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) is curating a blog series on vacant properties in metropolitan Chicago. In the coming weeks, MPC's blog, The Connector — as well as the web sites of some of our partners — will feature posts from elected and appointed officials, policy advocates, finance experts, and others about the many ways we are all working together to get a handle on this growing regional and national housing and community development challenge. The opinions expressed in these posts do not necessarily reflect MPC's opinion. Follow the series at 

Cook County recently joined the City of Chicago in passing a new vacant property ordinance that holds bank servicers as well as owners responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of vacant properties left behind during foreclosure. The new rules in both the Chicago and the Cook County ordinance are an important step forward because previously, only “owners” were responsible for property maintenance. Past ordinances did not give responsibility for upkeep to bank servicers that were in the process of foreclosure, but did not technically own the property yet. These so-called “in limbo” properties, located in neighborhoods throughout the county, are open to trespassers, can become a haven for criminal activity, and are sometimes stripped of wiring and appliances, making them less marketable and therefore less likely to sell. 

New ordinances now hold bank servicers accountable when a borrower stops paying the mortgage and a home becomes vacant. This gives new tools to municipalities that have been spending millions of taxpayer dollars to maintain vacant properties during the foreclosure process. This is a good step in the right direction, but to be truly effective the new laws must be enforced. In order to ensure timely and vigorous enforcement of vacant property ordinances, municipalities should consider the following four issues: 

Enforcement issues:  No more liens for unpaid fines 

Liens do not provide enough of an incentive for bank servicers to maintain properties because a fine does not represent an immediate cost. Bank servicers can wait until the property is sold to pay liens off, and therefore transfer the cost of fines to a new buyer. Municipalities should ensure that vacant property fines directly affect bank servicers by imposing actual costs, so there is a real incentive to keep properties up to code during the foreclosure process. 

Capacity issues: Use fine and fee money to beef up enforcement.

The purpose of vacant property fines is to provide an incentive for banks to keep properties in good repair. The fines should also pay for enforcement and the funds a municipality uses to clean up properties in violation of the ordinance. Therefore, it is worth investing in good enforcement to force either compliance or to provide enough money for a municipality to bring buildings into compliance themselves. Vacant property ordinances should not put extra burdens on municipalities. Fines should be a source of revenue to compensate for taxpayer money spent on vacant property maintenance and the problems they cause (fire and police response for example), especially when municipal budgets are tight.

Real consequences: Banks servicers must have an incentive to comply.

Enforcement must be swift to show bank servicers that a municipality is serious about compliance. To provide more of an incentive, municipalities should consider larger consequences for bank servicers that do not pay vacant property fines. For example, refusing to hold city money in banks that have not fully paid their fines, refusing to renew business licenses to banks and servicers that do not pay fines, or withholding city contacts are some options municipalities can consider to bring real consequences for not complying with vacant property ordinances.

Impact: Use the new rules to make a real difference at the community level.

Vacant Property Ordinances are a good tool that municipalities and other units of government can use to reduce neighborhood blight and prevent crime and health hazards associated with vacant properties left behind during the foreclosure process. In order for ordinances to be effective however, enforcement of the ordinances must be swift and the consequences for non-compliance must be real. Municipalities should invest in enforcement to ensure vacant property ordinances are taken seriously and make a real difference in the community. 

Elected officials, municipal administrators and citizens who would like to get involved with Action Now and work to reduce foreclosures, clean up vacant properties, and create more livable neighborhoods should visit our web site or give us a call at 312-676-4280. We are committed to making sure that vacant property ordinances result in a benefit to all Cook County residents, and we are willing to assist municipalities in developing effective enforcement mechanisms.


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