Client: Chicago Community Trust
DECATUR, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — They can be found dotted around Decatur.
Vacant, blighted homes that have been rotting for years.
The city slowly takes ownership of them, choosing to rebuild or demolish them, but the process often takes years.
That process begins with someone falling behind on their taxes.
If someone fails to pay their taxes, anybody — including out of state companies — can buy them during a tax sale. They are called tax buyers.
“Sight unseen, they don’t really know the properties,” Decatur Deputy City Manager Jon Kindseth said.
Kindseth says its not uncommon for property owners to abandon their homes once they learn someone has bought their taxes. Once that happens, it becomes difficult to untangle who is actually responsible for the property, but when the properties become vacant, the tax buyer can step in to care for the property. Some do just that.
“We know, the good tax buyers from the bad ones,” Kindseth said.
The “bad ones” he is referring to are the ones that don’t care for the property at all. They don’t need to. After four years they take steps to void the deal thanks to what’s called a “sale in error loophole.” The tax buyer essentially returns the rights they have to the deed, and in turn gets all their money they initially spent on the taxes, plus interest. State law allows those interest rates to go up to nine percent. After four years, that can amount to up to a 41 percent profit
“At the end of it, they’ll go back to the county trustee and say, I want my sale and error, I want my money back because that property is crappy, you know, it hasn’t been maintained for three or four years,” Kindseth said. “Well, of course.”
When houses remain vacant for that long, they can lead to big problems for neighbors, as well.
Beyond just being a general eye sore, the uncared for homes, like one on the northwest side of Decatur, can become infested by animals.
“When they started cleaning up that house, we got a lot of stray cats, they like to live under my porch now,” Briana Staley, a Decatur resident who lives across the street from a home that has been vacant for years. “And I was dealing with a mouse infestation that was absolutely terrible.”
People all over Decatur have stories just like hers.
And it’s not surprising, given how many properties get caught up in this legal loophole.
200 to 300 every single year. And so in some years, it’s going to be the same ones as the previous year.
Lawmakers are considering changes to the laws around tax buying. They are focusing on closing the loophole that let’s tax buyers take advantage of the system. A bill filed in the Senate would shorten the length of time a tax buyer can hold onto the taxes before requesting a sale in error. Instead of four years, the proposal would shorten it to one year.
Cities including Decatur and Peoria are on board with these proposals. They hope by clearing up the process, then properties can be turned around quicker, whether it be by fixing it up, or by demolishing and starting over.
“Hopefully, there’ll be some houses that are still worth rehabbing,” Kindseth said. “Or even if it is a demolition, at least, we get to demo it after three to four years, as opposed to having to suffer with that in our community for five, six, seven years.”