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Half-Built Homes: As Housing Market Continues to Improve, Situation Will Eventually Correct Itself

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By Becky Schlikerman, Robert McCoppin and Lisa Black

RISMEDIA, November 1, 2010—(MCT)—Every night before he goes to sleep, Ted Bachrach sets out four rat traps along a construction site next to his well-tended yard. In the morning, Bachrach gets up, makes coffee and removes the traps before he goes on with his day. “That’s my daily routine,” said the investment manager. Bachrach’s charming wood-frame home sits next to two unfinished single-family homes on a quiet residential street in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. For a while, he said, three homeless people were living in the garage of one house.

The construction project started two years ago, but just months into the work, the bank cut off funding, property owner Robert Chavin said. So now a boarded-up, two-story concrete block building—the brickwork halfway done—has sat untouched for more than a year. Construction on the other home had begun too, but didn’t even make it that far.

Half-built homes have popped up all over Chicago and the suburbs, a jarring leftover from the real estate market meltdown and ongoing foreclosures. Many were tear-downs of existing homes, replaced by skeletal structures that neighbors fear will lower their property values.

The languishing construction site on the city’s North Side is a glaring case study of the difficulties that frustrated residents, communities and lenders face in grappling with abandoned, half-finished homes. Though numbers are hard to measure—no one seems to track them—experts say there are plenty of examples. And there is little, they say, that can be done to remedy the dilemma other than put pressure on the owners, which are often banks.

“It is a national problem, especially in the Midwest and particularly in Chicago and the suburbs,” said Eli Lehrer, senior fellow at The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Chicago.

Unfinished houses pose a new challenge for many communities because they have few options for how to best deal with them.

“There is a well-developed program within the city to tear down houses that are abandoned,” Lehrer said of Chicago. “There is very little public policy for houses that have not been completed.”

The lack of a clear-cut action plan frustrates suburban residents as well. On a cozy tree-lined street in Skokie, Ill., Eddie D’Avis spent nights awake in bed, listening to loose insulation whip in the wind on the unfinished house next door. Many a time he thought about going out and ripping it down himself.

Instead, he waited for the owner to do something. He’s been waiting three years since construction was halted.

The two-story house still sits empty, with plywood walls and exposed eaves. Children wander onto the property, and squirrels and raccoons have climbed inside the shell. At one point, the grass grew two feet high and rainwater flooded the basement. A pile of rubble is in front and a chain-link fence surrounds the site.

Neighbors consider the place an eyesore, a blight on their tidy neighborhood of ranches and split-levels. “Either tear it down or build it up,” D’Avis said.

Neighbors said an elderly couple occupied a small brick ranch on the property, but had to move out due to health problems. A young man with a family, Tadeusz Zborowski, bought the home for $347,000 in 2006, records show. He tore it down and said he spent more than $150,000 of his own money to build a 3,200-square-foot house in hopes of selling it.

But he said he stopped construction when he couldn’t get any more financing. The property slowly deteriorated, and last year, Zborowski declared bankruptcy. The lender, Central Mortgage Co., filed for foreclosure and took possession Sept. 26.

Lenders can maintain a property, real estate broker Saul Zenkevicius says, but can’t improve it until they get ownership. Banks could sell such properties sooner if owners would deed the property to them rather than just walking away, he said.

In the meantime, the municipality is left to try to enforce its codes.

In Hinsdale, Ill., officials have pushed for banks to finish construction on half-built houses abandoned by “Johnny-come-lately builders who misread the market” and went bankrupt, said Robert McGinnis, building commissioner.

As a last resort, the village has issued citations under local ordinances. “We are not looking to be punitive just to be punitive,” McGinnis said. “We are trying to get a good outcome.”

For at least three years, an unfinished mansion in the 500 block of Clay Street in Hinsdale has sat in limbo, surrounded by dirt and a chain-link fence. The only current residents appear to be the coyotes, foxes and raccoons that slip in and out through the fence, neighbors say.

After the original builder abandoned the project, a bank took it in receivership, McGinnis said. But that bank was seized by the FDIC, and ownership was transferred to another bank, he said.

Next-door neighbor Josette Morel said the house should be put up for sale. Instead, she said, “We are being punished for someone else’s inappropriate behavior.”

Even when such houses are on the market, they are difficult to sell because they often require full cash payment and face a host of construction issues that only certain builders and lenders are willing to tackle, brokers say.

With the market so depressed, some owners and banks are letting unfinished properties sit until prices improve, said John Wozniak, incoming president of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Chicago. And financing is very difficult to get for such projects. “Banks are only going to spend what they have to, because they’ve already taken a hit on the property,” he said. “They’re trying to minimize their loss, the same as any other institution.”

Gail Schechter is especially perturbed when she drives by an unfinished home or apartment. As executive director of the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, she advocates for affordable housing. “I think it would be much better if instead of sitting half vacant and unfinished, they could bring in some churches and finish the housing and put some families there,” Schechter said. “It’s not right that they should be sitting vacant.”

In Highland Park, officials have pushed for builders to finish new homes even if they remain vacant. “That way, people don’t feel they live in a construction zone,” said Michael Blue, community development director. “We have a few that are finished but empty because they couldn’t sell them. As long as they are locked up and secure, they all look like someone is on vacation.”

Homer Glen, Ill.’s building department head, Joe Baber, said a handful of homes aren’t structurally completed, and the village closely monitors them to make sure they are being maintained.

The Heartland Institute’s Lehrer believes the problem of half-built houses will eventually correct itself as the housing market improves. Meanwhile, he doesn’t think neighbors should worry about their property values declining. “For a typical home in a typical neighborhood, a single unbuilt house—or even a group of them—isn’t likely to hurt the value,” he said. “But the presence of an eyesore may make an existing home harder to sell.”

Back in Lincoln Park, the home with the visiting rats has been referred to housing court. Chavin, the owner, said he got rid of the temporary squatters and that rats were in the area long before his house, which has no food or heat to attract them.

“We cleaned it up, it’s boarded up,” he said. “We are not causing the problem.”

Chavin said he’s built some 50 single-family homes on the North Side. He said there was little he could do after the bank halted funding, and that either the property will be foreclosed or he’ll give it back to the bank.

(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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