Vacant homes abound in Ill.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009
This photo taken April 30, 2009 shows a view of downtown Monessen, Pa., looking down Donnor Street. The area of Monessen, Pa., 28 miles south of Pittsburgh, had more vacant properties than any other neighborhood in Pennsylvania as of March 31, 2009 according to data compiled by The Associated Press from the U.S. Postal Service and the Housing and Urban Development Authority. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Tina Brian tries not to notice the boarded-up house next door, where the dandelions are thigh high and beer bottles litter the yard. She ignores the empty house across the street, with the detached garage she says is full of raccoons.

Still, the 30-year-old shift manager at a Springfield Burger King knows the abandoned homes drive down property values and weaken the neighborhood. In this part of the city, about 1 in 5 homes stands empty.

"That might be a nice house on the inside," she said, looking at one of the buildings. "If there weren't boards on there, someone would rent it."

Brian is hardly alone in facing a neighborhood of empty houses.

An Associated Press analysis found vacancy rates of 20 percent or more in nearly 40 Illinois census tracts, from Chicago to East St. Louis. Some are tiny clusters of a few dozen houses, but most contain hundreds of homes.

Forty-two percent of the homes were vacant in one section of Chicago's far south side, records show.

Some of these neighborhoods have been declining for years, victims of shuttered factories or larger demographic trends. Some face new challenges because of the recent foreclosure crisis and poor economy.

"It's really hard to redevelop an area unless you have a very strong local economy," said Dan McMillen, an economics professor at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Smaller cities have a larger struggle. Many of them spent decades relying on local industry to fuel the city, but since those large factories have closed or downsized, some people who lost jobs have left.

The bleeding isn't over, said Jim Hughes, deputy director of Regional Planning and Economic Development for Winnebago County, where Rockford's 13.5 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the state. In some spots, more than 22 percent of homes sit empty.

"When people lose their jobs, that will be another phase that people can't afford to make their home payment," Hughes said.

As employment in Illinois continues to erode, some people will face foreclosure, begin renting apartments or move in with family and friends -- all shrinking tax revenue for the city, county and state and possibly forcing officials to seek tax increases to make up the difference, said Geoffrey Hewings, director of the Regional Economics Applications Laboratory at the University of Illinois.

Even houses that are priced to sell are hard to move when empty and forgotten homes are scattered in the neighborhood, said Brian Bernardoni of the Chicago Association of Realtors.

"The curb appeal goes away when you see a series of boards up," he said.

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