Unwanted 'scavenger' properties linked to crime, exit from Illinois, Cook County Treasurer says

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The ABC7 I-Team investigated the ripple-effect of "scavenger properties" in Cook County - and solutions to getting rid of eye-sore properties on your block.

The Cook County Treasurer's Office says there are several thousand abandoned properties, including abandoned homes, businesses or empty lots - and many of these unwanted "scavenger properties" can be tied to higher crime rates and an exit from Illinois.

A drive around the Englewood and West Englewood neighborhoods shows boarded up homes, businesses and overgrown lots.

"I think that we failed," 16th Ward Alderman Stephanie Coleman said. "I know that what I've inherited in the last two years, and helping to personally contact some of those home owners, that this is what's happening. How can we get you assistance? Are you even aware that your home is at risk?"

In Illinois, homes are at risk of being put on the so-called "scavenger sale list" after three years of being behind on property taxes, even if its as little as a few hundred dollars. That could result in people losing their homes.

Coleman said it's a problem plaguing the area where she grew up. She showed the I-Team properties in her neighborhood, saying: "We will hope that someone buys it, because look at the beautiful masonry. Beautiful solid brick."

According to a recent study from Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, Coleman's ward leads the city with almost 8,000 unwanted "scavenger properties" listed from 2007-2019. In all of Cook County, there were more than 51,000 unwanted scavenger properties recorded in that 12-year period.
Pappas said they can't give the properties away. The current list has 30,000.

"We're seeing a correlation between property, vacant land, residences and commercial property that have been lingering on a tax sale list that no one wants," Pappas explained. "We're seeing 50% of the violent crime in the city, in those areas. They're saying, 'I'm not going to stay someplace where there's a potential for gunshots.'"

According to Pappas' report, the areas with the most "scavenger properties" are also home to mostly Black and Latinx residents.

"If you look at some of the top African American suburbs, Harvey has 5,400 pieces; Chicago Heights 2,500; Robins 1,700; Markham, 1,500" Pappas said. "I mean this is a frightening chart, when you look at this."

The scavenger study showed Harvey was the suburb with the most unwanted properties at 5,437. On one Harvey block, the I-Team found five abandoned homes in a row.

"I think that's a lot of properties," Harvey Mayor Christopher Clark said. "I think it's something definitely needs to be done about it. But it takes a comprehensive approach on all parts of the local governments, the county government and the state government to fix it."

Clark said that even though bidding on properties could start at $250 with back taxes erased, investors don't want to take on the future tax burden.

"The assessment is high here in the city of Harvey, so we need those estimates to come down," Clark said.

Clark said jobs are needed in the community to attract residents who will invest in the properties. "And now the city has to spend excess dollars trying to demolish or maintain those properties," he added.

The treasurer's report also says many of the communities with unwanted "scavenger properties" also experienced a population decline. The study found Harvey lost 5,400 people from 2000 to 2018, and that Coleman's 16th Ward lost 2,400 people from 2010-2016.

"They are getting the heck out of Illinois," Coleman said. "Because of the better housing stock, bigger homes for the same price, not being overtaxed and underserved."

Coleman, Pappas and other leaders said they're starting programs to educate people on staying on top of property tax bills, and pushing to change laws which can quickly put some homeowners on that "scavenger sale" list.

The city of Chicago has more than 25,000 of the lingering "scavenger sale" properties, about half of the total in Cook County.
Copyright © 2021 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.