With Oak Park seeing a notable surge in foreclosures during the current recession, the community is looking to respond.

Applications have been submitted to bring federal money here to help fight and prevent further foreclosures. If obtained, those dollars could be used by village hall to purchase foreclosed homes and spruce them up for resale, as well as funding a local nonprofit that works to keep families from losing their homes in the first place.

New foreclosures: Each black dot represents a foreclosure filed between Jan. 1, 2008 and Feb. 28, 2009, including apartment buildings, commercial properties, condominiums, townhomes and single family residences.
SOURCE: Village of Oak Park

“It’s this double whammy of people losing their jobs, and obviously not being able to afford housing,” said Lynda Schueler, executive director of West Suburban PADS, which provides support to the homeless. “With this housing crisis going on, there are households falling through the cracks that aren’t eligible for the funding that’s available for homeless prevention.”

Over the past three years, Oak Park has seen foreclosure filings nearly double, according to the Woodstock Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit that advocates for investment and economic development in low-income and minority communities. Foreclosure filings have jumped from 107 in 2006 to 205 last year, a 92-percent increase.

Oak Park is not alone. Neighboring communities such as Berwyn (155 percent), Cicero (174 percent) and Forest Park (175 percent) have all seen even larger swells in the number of foreclosure filings.

River Forest wasn’t immune either, with foreclosure filings rising from 22 in 2006 to 38 last year, a 73-percent increase.

Overall, Cook County saw a 100-percent increase in foreclosure filings during that three-year span, according to Woodstock. Neighboring counties such as DuPage, and Kane saw foreclosure filings increase by more than 100 percent.

The problem has persisted into 2009. Oak Park had 54 more filings in the first quarter of 2009 and River Forest had eight, said Tammie Grossman, housing programs manager for the Village of Oak Park.

Housing and Economic Recovery funds

Oak Park is attempting to take a pro-active approach to addressing the foreclosure crisis at a local level. The village is submitting an application to obtain funds through the Housing and Economic Recovery Act that Congress passed last summer. Oak Park hopes to get an undetermined amount of money to purchase foreclosed homes, fix them up and resell them. The application is due mid-May.

Grossman said Oak Park Residence Corp., a housing development non-profit, would oversee the purchase and rehab, while the Oak Park Regional Housing Center would counsel potential buyers to determine if they’re eligible to assume the fixed-up homes.

The Housing Center had 33 foreclosure clients in the first quarter of this year, about as many as the nonprofit saw in all of 2008, said Executive Director Rob Breymaier. Last November, the agency started to see a shift from property owners who were delinquent on their mortgages due to “unscrupulous loans” to owners who were behind because of a loss of income.

Oak Park is also working with the South East Oak Park Community Organization (SEOPCO) on the application. Homes are less expensive in SEOPCO’s area (bordered by Garfield, Roosevelt, Austin and East), and the village is looking to partner on its application with Berwyn just across the street, Grossman said.

Jim Kelly, co-chair of SEOPCO, said the organization supports the village’s effort.

“It sounded to us like a very well thought out approach to recovering a home, rehabilitating it and putting it within financial reach of a family with a reliable enough credit rating to assume the mortgage,” he said.

Kelly has heard about some cases of unsightly foreclosed properties, where grass isn’t being cut or sidewalks shoveled. He hopes this effort could prevent a “major blight on the neighborhood.”

Other measures

In addition to the rehab effort, the village is already trying other ways to address foreclosures, Grossman said. Oak Park subscribed to a foreclosure-monitoring service about six months ago. The village also adopted a vacant building ordinance in November to help stay on top of empty properties, including businesses.

The Homeowner Protection Act, which Governor Quinn signed into law April 5, provides a 90-day moratorium on home foreclosures and gives homeowners time to craft a plan with their lender to get back on track.

“So I just think the numbers are going to decrease, even though the first quarter isn’t saying that,” Grossman said.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is allocating money to Oak Park through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, according to village documents. Oak Park is slated to receive $796,581 in “homelessness prevention funds.”

Schueler said PADS hopes to use some of those funds to aid families that might “fall through the cracks.” The dollars could help to rapidly re-house those who don’t qualify for homeless prevention funding, as well as transitioning individuals out of homeless shelters.

Molly Surowitz, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty, said she’s seen many people sell their homes at a “significant loss” to avoid going into foreclosure. That may be driving down home values, she noted, but it also opens Oak Park up to other buyers.

A few years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find a single-family home for less than $300,000 here. But on Monday, there were 44 homes listed for under that amount on the Multiple Listing Service.

“That’s the nice part,” she said. “It’s actually making Oak Park a bit more affordable.”

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com

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