Vacant properties around schools threaten the safety of students

When a young girl was raped at gunpoint between two vacant buildings only two blocks from Earle Elementary School at 8:45 am on Tuesday, Feb. 21, the issue of unsecured vacant properties around schools and how they affect neighborhoods like West Englewood came up again, with renewed urgency.

The CBS story about the assault advised parents to “identify safe havens on their children’s routes to school, such as trusted neighbors or local businesses.” But for communities decimated by foreclosure, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Earle Elementary School, at 61st Streetand Hermitage Avenue, is surrounded by vacant properties. In fact, with more than 449 empty properties within 1,000 yards of the school, it’s near the top of the list of Chicago schools in the midst of the shells of the foreclosure crisis, according to an analysis by The Chicago Reporter.

Around Chicago, “nearly half of the city's schools are surrounded by at least 100 vacant homes. Roughly 10 percent, or 60, of the schools have 300 or more vacant properties within 1,000 yards,” the Reporter investigation found.

“Our young people are just trying to get a decent education,” said Michelle Young, president of Action Now. Incidents like these make “whole neighborhoods concerned,” and highlight the importance of legislation like the Secure Homes Ordinance.

Under the proposed ordinance, introduced on Oct 5, owners of vacant properties would be required to hire security guards for the buildings during school hours, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., but the legislation has yet to pass the Chicago City Council.  Action Now  has been lobbying to push banks to secure vacant properties for years.

Even if  the ordinance does pass, however, it will only be the first step--vacant but unregistered buildings would continue to be a problem. Owners of vacant buildings are responsible for registering them as vacant properties, according to a city ordinance passed in 2008, to keep them from falling into disrepair and hurting communities like West Englewood.

But the Reporter found that this isn’t always the case, especially with bank-owned properties. In fact, at least 50 percent of bank-owned homes were never registered, a 2011 investigation found.

Action Now, which put together a candlelight vigil for the young girl, said that the two properties between which the assault happened were vacant.

But neither of the buildings are registered as such. One of the buildings, 5950 S. Hermitage Ave., owned by Steve Martinez, according to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds, is awaiting an administrative hearing because the city believes it is vacant. On the other side of the alley, 5952 S. Hermitage Ave., owned by the Chicago Title Land Trust, also isn’t registered as vacant.

At least 5 other buildings on the block of the assault are in a similar state of limbo, according to the Chicago Department of Building records. The building at 5950 S. Hermitage Ave. sits next to a vacant lot, and a couple of houses down the street is 5958 S. Hermitage Ave., which is waiting to be demolished.

Across the street is 5943 S. Hermitage Ave., awaiting a court date to be considered for demolition, and on that same side of the block is 5918 S. Hermitage Ave., currently in court to be considered for demolition, and 5915 S. Hermitage Ave. is not officially registered.

“We ask community to get involved with issues like these before something happens,” said Young, but she hopes that the tragedy comes with a renewed push to ensure the safety of students walking to and from school.

“What happened to that child could happen to another child in the neighborhood,” said Young. “The only  way this problem will be solved is when communities get involved” to organize for legislation that would keep this from happening again.

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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