There have been meetings, protests and even tours to draw attention to the lingering foreclosure crisis that continues to plague thousands of West Side residents who are fighting for their homes and businesses.
Bank representatives, community leaders and residents agree on one thing: something needs to be done, and fast — but that’s where the agreement stops.
Handling a foreclosed property is “complicated” because often, more than one bank is involved, said Pia Hermoso Heslip, program officer at the Chicago Rehab Network, a citywide coalition of neighborhood and community-based development organizations.
With each foreclosed home there is an assigned trustee, or the mortgage note holder, as well as the servicer, which is the company or entity working for the bank that “services” the loans. When these positions are held by two different banks, the situation becomes “complicated because generally speaking, neither bank wants to take full ownership,” Heslip said.
“It is quite common to have several banks involved in one property,” she said. “It does complicate the service of the property because it is difficult to determine who is responsible.”
This was, and some would argue still is, the case for the two-story home located on the 5300 block of West Congress, next to Oscar and Delia Ewing who have spoken up at several Coalition to Save Community Banking meetings.
The Ewings were promised immediate action, but two days later, on June 10, work had yet to begin on the property. The hold up, as explained by Lisa Clark, media relations for US Bank, was that Wells Fargo was in fact the servicer, and therefore “responsible for maintaining and securing the property.”
“We got to work on the issue immediately,” she said. “But the next day we found out that we weren’t the servicer, just the trustee, so we tracked down the servicer, which is Wells Fargo, and they have taken care of the issue.”
The issue, Clark said, was overgrown grass, people and animals on the property, personal possessions in and around the property, with no boarded-up or locked doors or windows.
Virgil Crawford of the Westside Health Authority, said there are still problems with the property three months later. Both Crawford and Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition have confirmed that the lawn has indeed been trimmed and picked up, but just the doors have been boarded, leaving access to the house through the windows.
“We know that Wells Fargo and US Bank have worked together to secure the property with a lock and have also mowed the front lawn,” Crawford said. “I know that the Ewings and other neighbors are OK with what has been done. But it is not enough, and it is not what we agreed to.”
Crawford described the agreement as maintaining the property long term, boarding it up and sealing the property to deter “squatters.”
“We need to get these buildings secure at a level where we can prevent all access,” he said. “These vacant properties have been devastating to our community.”
Ewing said there hasn’t been much activity on the property but said they have seen some people entering and exiting the garage, and they described an orange ladder against the house, going up to a second-floor window.
“They locked up the front door and back door of the house with a pad lock,” Ewing said. “I know they have mowed the yard, but it really needs to be cleaned because there is still trash and the bushes are still overgrown.”
The main problem, she said, is the windows, and the garage at the back of the property is wide-open, attracting people who’ve apparently stored clothing and other items.
Debra Bloom, a representative with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, said the grass was cut the first time on June 10, and has been maintained on a bi-weekly basis since. She also added that water was pumped out of the basement on June 12.
“We have had people out at the property, and it is on a regular maintenance schedule,” she said. “We have also taken steps to secure the property and keep it maintained until it is put back on the market and sold.”
Heslip said that once a property becomes bank-owned or an REO and has been vacated, it’s supposed to be secured, then the bank can put it up for auction or sheriff’s sale. A secured property, by definition, means there is no access to the property, windows or doors.
The City Council passed a Vacant Property Ordinance in 2008, but Heslip said the Department of Buildings has been struggling to enforce the ordinance because it can be difficult to determine the owner/s.
The banks have shown they can address the needs of these buildings and the concerns of the community, Redmond said.
“They have the ability to get out and make a difference, but they aren’t doing it,” he said. “These buildings need to be locked tight and secured until they are back on the market. They have the power to do it if they are pushed, so I guess we have to keep pushing them.”
Added Crawford: “I think this property is a a perfect example of how the banks are just putting a small drop in the bucket, as opposed to going out, securing, maintaining and getting these homes back on the market. If these buildings in Austin and on the West Side aren’t secured, if this isn’t done, it really adds to the challenge we are currently faced with, not only the high rates of foreclosed properties, but the high rate of crime and violence.”