ROCKFORD - Abandoned properties are eyesores, and they're all over Rockford. Two years ago, Eyewitness News looked into how Rockford is fighting blight. Now, we're following up to see what has changed.
On a snowy day, tracks leading to and from a blighted property on Elm Street give neighbors a good indicator that, just because the house next door is vacant, doesn't mean it's empty.
"During [the] wintertime... somebody comes into the house, because you see footprints coming into that house," said neighbor, Cynthia Foster.
"People that want to use drugs or people that want some place to hide, that's what it attracts," said Foster. She takes care of Ozelia Morgan, an elderly woman who raised nine children in her home on Elm Street where she's lived in for 50 years.
"It was nice and quiet when we first moved here," explained Morgan. Now, Morgan double locks all her doors and keeps a security camera rolling.
It's a sign that the times have changed, as much as the house next door has. An upstairs window is broken out, and a red 'x' is attached by the front door, identifying an issue that doesn't stop at this street corner.
Distressed properties plague Rockford. But, putting an exact number on the problem isn't easy.
Two years ago, Eyewitness News found that there were well over 6,000 properties that could be potentially vacant.
Today, Rockford City Adminstrator Todd Cagnoni says that number has dropped to around 5,400. Homes that make the list have raised some kind of red flag that warrants further inspection. The indicators of a vacant home can include a code violation, having the water turned off, be in foreclosure, or be condemned.
"Just because they're on this list, doesn't mean that they should be demolished," said Cagnoni.
Last year, the city rehabilitated 23 homes, assisted buyers in acquiring another 11, and demolished 107. That's about how many homes the city will likely tear down in 2018, too.
Eric Mark, owner of J.D. Mark, Inc., has worked with the City of Rockford for more than a decade to reduce abandoned homes to piles of splintered wood.
"We've had numerous times where, as soon as we pull up with a machine to unload, we have neighbors run out, clapping and thanking us," said Eric Mark.
It takes only about an hour to tear down a home, but the approval process to get the job done can take much longer. That's because before walls can fall, the city must notify all parties connected to the property.
"A lot of these [homes] get contested by the property owner," explained Mark. "And it's always the worst of the worst, it seems like."
So while Mark knocks down the past, Cagnoni admits there's a lot of work to be done in the future.
"Certainly, there [are] structures that still need to be demolished and there are homes that still need to be rehabilitated and there's work to be done within our neighborhoods," said Cagnoni. "But, I would say that we're seeing improvement."
But to Mrs. Morgan, the city's steps are outpaced by the foot tracks outside the eyesore nextdoor, a house she believes is not only bringing down her property value, but threatening her safety in the very neighborhood she loved for so long.
"That's a scary feeling," said Morgan. "Real scary."
While demolition costs and home buyer assistance funding often come through grants, abandoned properties still burden taxpayers. For example, when a vacant home goes up in flames and is deemed a total loss, it has to come down. Cagnoni says that costs on average $9,000.
In 2017, there were 35 different abandoned structures that went up in flames, which totals more than $300,000 in costs.
Cagnoni says the best way to stay on top of the vacant home problem is to be aware of it. That means anyone who's living next to a blighted property is encouraged to let the city know about it. Cagnoni promises each complaint filed will be looked into. Here's a link to the City of Rockford's website where you can go to file a complaint.
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