Abandoned ‘Zombie Houses’ kill property values, but neighbors are fighting back

WGN Investigates

CHICAGO — Owning a home is considered part of the American dream, but for tens of thousands of people in the Chicago area it has become a nightmare.

It’s not their home that’s the problem; it’s neighbors' abandoned houses that sit vacant and decaying for years, lowering the surrounding property values in the process. Called "Zombie Houses," they are often left empty while they're stuck in a legal limbo.

WGN Investigates what’s being done to bring these properties back from the dead.

In addition to falling into disrepair, such homes can provide easy access for squatters, drug dealers and other criminals. It's become a real issue in areas of the Roseland neighborhood, where Pastor Glines House of New Life Baptist Church says residents have had enough.

“At night, they hear all kinds of noise and fighting, cursing, and dialects coming left and right so they’re having a problem with that,” Pastor House said.

Driving through the 16th ward, Alderman Toni Foulkes said the problem of abandoned housing is personal.

“When you're a little girl people tell you, 'get out of the ghetto,' and I made it out, went to college,” Ald. Foulkes said. “But, I was homesick, and I came home.”

While Zombie Houses are an issue in parts of Englewood and other areas of her ward, Foulkes said transformation is underway. Businesses, private companies and house flippers are taking advantage of the low prices and rebuilding, street by street.

One organization taking part in this transformation is the Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN), which teaches carpentry and other trades to former convicts, who then use their skills to fix up the vacant homes they acquire.

“So, when you talk about stabilizing blocks like these, it's important to both do that with those who've come directly from the community, but also be able to demonstrate to neighbors who came to us and said, 'we got to do something about these properties,'" senior organizer Shamar Hempill said.

Others like the Cook County Land Bank are trying to address vacant housing in 13 communities by removing barriers like outstanding taxes and bills, making the property more desirable for developers. The land bank is working one house at a time, according to Executive Director Robert Rose, stabilizing blocks by getting families to move into rehabilitated homes.

“Once they are rehabilitated and the family moves in... That whole block is healthy. That whole neighborhood becomes healthier,” Rose said.

Yet for all the optimism, the reality remains vacant and "Zombie" homes remain an enormous problem.