At any given time in the City of Rockford about 2,000 homes sit vacant. Some are left alone until they are re-sold or torn down. Others become a nuisance and create safety concerns for neighbors and law enforcement. 13 News reporter Rebecca Klopf looks at these problem properties to find out what the city is planning to do with them.
"This problem isn't going away anytime soon. It's only getting worse and worse with foreclosures going up," says Seth Sommers, City of Rockford, Building Code Official.
Sommers is talking about vacant homes. Sommers says the city uses water shutoffs to figure out how many empty houses are out there. But in almost 99-percent of the cases Sommers says the only way the city finds out if a home is a problem is through complaints.
"Some vacant properties are well maintained. The lawn is mowed. The appearance is kept up. Other areas that have vacant homes are targets for vandalism, crime, different things. There's no rhyme or reason to this it just varies throughout the city," says Sommers.
Jim Sadler considers his neighborhood to be in a middle class part of Rockford with both older and younger people living there. But with six vacant homes nearby including one across the street Jim is worried.
"We are certainly concerned about people who want to take up residency there when they aren't supposed to be there," says Sandler.
Rockford Police believe he is right to be concerned.
"Abandoned properties sooner or later become police problems," says Deputy Chief Dave Hopkins.
He says those homes provide cover either inside or out for criminal activity.
"You are looking at burglaries, you are looking at theft, you're looking at vandalism, you're looking at graffiti. Many times there is drug use and sometimes prostitution," says Deputy Chief Hopkins.
Police aren't the only law enforcement agency seeing problems with vacant homes. This summer was very busy for Rockford fire fighters battling blazes at abandoned houses.
"A lot of fires that have occurred in these homes were accidental. We've dealt with people, squatters or homeless people that are occupying those structures setting fires to cook. Removing wiring and insulation and setting fires for random purposes," says Division Chief Matt Knott, Rockford Fire Department.
These fires inside vacant homes can cost taxpayers much more than just the fire fighters time. Rockford residents end up with the bill when crews get hurt on the job battling those blazes.
"Locally we see a lot of our injuries occurring in vacant homes also. We look at statistically over the last few years we are at approximately 26 injuries in dealing with fires in vacant homes," says Knott.
The ideas of fires or burglaries happening inside vacant homes have people like Sadler worried.
"I've seen one at the top of our street get broken into several times," says Sadler.
"Sure enough the back window was broken, the garage door was kicked in. It happens when these homes are left unattended, there's no curtains on the windows, there is grass growing up in the driveway, there's mail piled in the mailbox," Tony Duran, neighbor to Sadler and captain of their neighborhood watch group.
It's part of the reason Sadler joined his community's neighborhood watch. He feels like if the city doesn't do more to crack down on these problem properties it's only a matter of time before the problems end up at his front door.
"It's not our home but it does have an impact on what happens close to home. And when it's close to home certainly it could happen here," says Sadler.
Rockford has started a problem properties team to look at ways to strategize with all city departments to go over homes with issues. However, the meetings are not public and leaders expect it may take some time before any recommendations are presented to the city council or the mayor.
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