Foreclosed, forelorn: An empty home sits in the 600 block of North Long Avenue. (Courtesy AustinTalks)

A group of community organizers worked from the end of 2012 into the spring of 2013 cleaning out an abandoned two-flat at 4824 W. Van Buren. 

The goal was to provide two families with housing once renovations were complete.

But the developer soon discovered a host of issues. Because the water had not been turned off, the basement had flooded, the roof needed to be repaired and all the fixtures were missing. And the furnace, pipes, toilet and bathtub had also been stolen from the property.

This is just one example of what occurs among hundreds of properties on the West Side.

According to Elce Redmond, an organizer with the South Austin Coalition Community Council, as soon as the banks come in and board up these properties, the scavengers appear.

“They completely strip the buildings,” Redmond said. “Then the squatters follow and use the houses for drinking or doing drugs.”

Many times, there are fires in these buildings, Redmond said, because of the drug use, causing residents living nearby even more worry.

“Many of these properties are destroying the very fabric of the community,” Redmond said.

The Woodstock Institute recently released a study that ranks Austin 27th among 77 Chicago communities for its number of so-called “zombie” properties from 2008 to 2010.

A property becomes a zombie when the mortgage provider files for foreclosure but never completes the process; no one fully owns the property. This lack of ownership causes properties to fall into poor condition because no one is maintaining them.

Even though the city of Chicago has a vacant building ordinance, a federal court ruling cleared the Federal Housing Finance Agency of any responsibility of properties in Chicago it did not fully own.

The agency, which is the conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, services nearly 60 percent of all mortgages in the nation. This means the majority of homes in Chicago that go into foreclosure may not be maintained under the city ordinance standards if the foreclosure process is not completed.

According to Michael Aumiller, a research associate at the Woodstock Institute, the agency should withdraw its lawsuit and “comply with local vacant buildings ordinance registration and maintenance requirements.”

Redmond agreed, insisting that the agency should have some accountability for these properties.

“I think they should have to take care of those buildings, especially since the government had to bail them out,” he said.

The Van Buren property that Redmond’s organization tried to rehab has been torn down by the city, but Redmond estimates there are about 250 other houses in Austin that fall into the same category.

He said it’s impossible to fix up these properties without money and bank participation. As for the lenders, Aumiller maintains that something should be done to hold them accountable for the properties.

“Mortgage providers should coordinate with local governments, nonprofits and land banks to return zombie properties to productive use,” he said.

The Woodstock Institute estimates that an additional 3,200 zombie properties could emerge citywide by the end of 2015 if nothing changes.

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