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03/18/2010

Chicago Housing Disaster


 Cameraman Ken Bedford and I visited Chicago's West Garfield Park neighborhood to do a story about the abysmal response so far to Mayor Daley's property tax relief program.  WGP is a high-unemployment, African-American enclave on the west side.   Because of the timing of its last re-assessment, the area has recorded some of the biggest property tax increases in the city.

  The skyrocketing taxes combined with the recession, joblessness, sub-prime mortgages and other shifty lending practices have ignited chaos in what only five years ago appeared to be a neighborhood in revival.  Drive along any block in WGP and see a dozen boarded-up houses and multi-unit buildings.   Knock on the doors of occupied houses and flats and talk to homeowners and tenants whose buildings are in various stages of foreclosure.

  Once homes and apartment buildings are foreclosed and "taken over" by mortgage insurers Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, they are boarded up and left unused.  I wondered what happened to the families who only a few years ago were living in those buildings.  Residents say the board-ups have so drained the available housing here that rents are skyrocketing in WGP as foreclosed residents look for new shelter. 

   Until March 31st, Chicago's Property Tax Relief program offers refunds to any homeowner who makes less than $200,000 a year and whose 2008 property tax bill showed an increase.  City officials estimate the average refund should be about $150 and that half the city's homeowners--about 200,000--would qualify.

  But so far, only about 20,000 have applied and the city has used only $700,000 of the $35 million dollars made available from the reserve fund set up after the Daley administration sold the parking meter system.

  The West Garfield Park homeowners I interviewed told me that they hadn't applied for the program because they hadn't heard about it.  But all insisted whatever amount of money the city might refund would certainly help in these desperate times.

  But they added a couple of hundred dollars would not come close to solving their individual financial problems or the much bigger housing crisis here.

   Its a disaster.

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