Securing Students’ Safety

By Gregory Cappis

In 2011, Chicago authorities have been receiving an average of 35 complaints about abandoned buildings per day. These vacant properties pose a threat to the safety of residents—especially children—and decrease property values of surrounding homes, according to public officials.

Two proposed ordinances would impose stricter regulations on owners of vacant properties. Violaters would be subjected to fines ranging from $100–$500 per day.

“Pretty much anyone can tell you about a vacant building on or near their block where there is drug activity or criminal activity,” said Aileen Kelleher, communications director of Action Now, a community organization that works to improve

the lives of residents. “Kids have to walk by that on their ways to and from school, and parents don’t know if their kids are going to be pulled into a vacant building and possibly assaulted.”

One proposed ordinance, called Vacant Property Safe Passage, would force owners of five or more properties to place a guard at vacant buildings within 1,000 feet of public schools from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. This was introduced to the City Council’s Housing Committee on Oct. 5.

Kelleher recommends that property owners hire members of the local community to fill these guard positions since the job market is so slim.

Another ordinance sponsored by Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) and strongly supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, would significantly speed up the foreclosure process from two years to about six months. It would also subject owners to fines if they do not upkeep their properties.

“We provide clarity to the banks in terms of the maintenance requirements the city expects them to be responsible for, so there is no fogginess about what they should be doing in our neighborhoods,” Dowell said of the proposed ordinance.

The ordinance would force property owners–including banks–to place a sign on the building with information about the property. It would also require the grass to be maintained below 10 inches. All doors and windows must be secured, and the integrity of the building’s structure must also be maintained.

Aldermen Robert Fioretti (2nd Ward) and Deborah Graham (29th Ward) sponsored the Vacant Property Safe Passage ordinance. They worked with the Chicago Teachers Union and Action Now to draft it.

A similar ordinance was introduced but not passed last year. It required all property owners to put a guard on duty during school hours.

This ordinance only requires people or businesses that own five or more properties to place a guard on duty at properties near schools.

This draft focuses more on big businesses instead of mom-and-pop-style property owners, according to Fioretti, who said they normally do a better job of maintaining their property.

He is confident this new ordinance will be passed when it goes in front of the entire council in the next couple of months. He said he has the support of the majority of his colleagues.

Emanuel has been working to hold property owners throughout the state accountable for vacant buildings that pose a threat to the safety of the community.

“In the last session in Springfield, I pushed hard to get a statewide foreclosure legislation. The big banks opposed that. They said this was a local issue, and there was no action taken,” Emanuel said.

A spokesman for PNC Bank refused to comment on proposed legislation. Other banks could not be reached.

Once this ordinance is passed in Chicago, Emanuel plans to make it a statewide issue.

“We have finally come up with a consensus that reforms our ordinance here in the city,” he said. “We have the ability to go to Springfield with large financial institutions, the community banks [and] the community groups in a comprehensive decision on foreclosure legislations.”

If this ordinance does pass in the city council and later becomes a state law, neighborhoods will be much safer for children, according to Emanuel.

“We’ve also heard from neighborhood residents that [vacant properties are] where sex offenders or pedophiles can hide,” Kelleher said. “It’s just a haven for any crime, and kids shouldn’t have to walk near these open, unsecured buildings that banks foreclose on and now don’t want to take care of.”