Vacant buildings

A shuttered home in the first block of North Latrobe Avenue, on Chicago's West Side. (Alex Garcia, Chicago Tribune / April 29, 2013)

In the first 10 days of September, city of Chicago operators logged 359 calls about problems at vacant buildings, ranging from reports of open or missing front or back doors to pried-off plywood panels to trespassers.

The city is trying to lessen that number by requiring the entities responsible for vacant buildings to more quickly register them, and if they don't, speed up when the city can issue a fine and force them to secure a building.

An amendment to the city's vacant building ordinance, introduced at the Chicago City Council meeting Wednesday, would require owners and mortgage servicers to immediately secure a vacant building. The building would then need to be registered with the city as vacant, either within 30 days of it becoming vacant or within 30 days of ownership being taken. A sign affixed to the building would show its vacant property registration number and contact information related to the building.

As written, the ordinance, which has been in effect for almost two years, gave owners and mortgage servicers 30 days to secure and register buildings with the city.

Another proposed change to the law would allow the city, after only one inspection, to issue a ticket or violation against a building that is in violation of the ordinance. Currently, two inspections are needed. The change is designed to trim to two months from three the process of citing a building owner and getting the case before a hearing officer, as well as to save manpower.

"We have so many vacant buildings," said Judy Frydland, the city's deputy corporation counsel. "It's a waste of resources, and this is more efficient."

Chicago has an estimated 18,000 vacant buildings, 5,535 of which are registered with the city. The city's building department has 21 inspectors and is seeking to boost that number, according to Department of Buildings Commissioner Michael Merchant.

Yet the tougher rules proposed Wednesday would widen the disparity in how some buildings within the city would be treated.

Properties in the foreclosure process whose mortgages are owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do not need to follow the city's vacant building laws, as a result of a federal court ruling last month. The Federal Housing Finance Agency, the overseer of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, sued the city in December 2011, saying the properties should be exempt from the city law because of its federal charter.

Instead, the FHFA argued, buildings under its control would follow Fannie- and Freddie-issued rules, rules that the FHFA, in court, acknowledged were not as strenuous as the city's ordinance.

Community groups have called for the city to appeal the decision, saying it will lead to more blight in neighborhoods devastated by the foreclosure crisis.

Frydland said the city was determining whether to appeal U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Durkin's opinion.

The amended ordinance was introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Jo Ann Thompson, 16th, whose ward includes 302 properties on the registry.

mepodmolik@tribune.com

Twitter @mepodmolik