Vacant properties in Austin and throughout city available for acquisition

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Some 200 vacant properties in Austin are slated for demolition by the city of Chicago, but many can be saved by residents in the community.

Nearly 2,000 properties citywide are on the list to be demolished, according to data from the Chicago Department of Buildings. The properties are seized through court order after becoming abandoned by the owner.

But the city is looking for neighborhood residents to acquire some of these buildings through its property forfeiture program, said John Scott, deputy commissioner for the buildings department.

Many of these properties, which include residential and commercial, were abandoned by owners due to delinquent taxes. A potential owner can acquire a property by paying off the back taxes or through a consent decree reached with the current owner, which the city will help facilitate, Scott said.

For Austin, the 28th Ward has 102 properties on the demolition list. The 37th Ward has 76 properties, while the 29th Ward has 16 listed. The most properties listed on the West Side are in North Lawndale’s 24th Ward, with about 120 properties listed, while the 27th Ward has 53.

Acquiring a property takes time as several court hearings are required with potential owners, whose screening process includes a review of their finances, Scott said.

And while some current owners do work with the city, Scott said most properties have simply been abandoned.

“These are people in most cases that don’t want anything to do with these properties because they’ve walked away from them,” he said, adding that other instances involve a deceased homeowner with no other relative able to take over the property.

Other outstanding bills and liens attached the vacant property are wiped clean for a new owner.

“Even if there’s a lien on the property for outstanding water balances, you as the applicant will be coming out with a zero balance,” Scott said.

The city approved 60 forfeitures last year, though the program limits a potential owner to a five-property limit, Scott said.

Since March, just over 75 forfeiture applications have been filed with the city. Potential buyers can only acquire properties through consent with an owner, however, Scott said, because judges won’t sign off on a contested forfeiture.

“The beauty of this program, when it works well, is it gives community residents the ability to take control of what’s happening on their block,” Scott said.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said the program is an excellent opportunity for home ownership without the cost of a mortgage.

“It gives us an opportunity to develop the community that we live in, and it’s a different program by the city. I would like to see it expanded upon, and I’d certainly like to see these buildings in the Austin community get purchased.”

The most run-down properties, Scott added, become dangerous due to structural deterioration and lack of upkeep. The city typically receives complaints from neighbors when squatters or gangs try to take over a vacant property, Scott said.

Dwayne Betts, Austin’s 15th District police commander, said those properties are a priority for his officers.

“We’ve seen that people who are doing wrong will often use vacant properties as their hiding place,” Betts said. “They retreat there either after they’ve fired a weapon, or it’s a place where they feel comfortable drinking, gambling and performing illicit acts.”

Scott said the city works closely with the Chicago Police Department and the community in dealing with these “problem properties.”

“If there are buildings there that have criminal activity, we can work to resolve it,” he said.

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