CHICAGO — As the housing market enters a new year of watching and waiting for stability to return, there is also some action afoot: Efforts are expected to take shape to tackle the vast swath of empty homes and fill them with residents — and in many cases, renters.
Much of the worry for housing in 2012 concerns unemployment levels and elevated mortgage delinquency rates. The number of homes entering the foreclosure process is also on the uptick as servicers pick up the pace following a slowdown caused by questions about industry practices. During the third quarter of 2011, the number of homes that entered the foreclosure process was 21 percent higher than in the second quarter, and there are an estimated 3 million homes whose mortgages are seriously delinquent, are in foreclosure or have been repossessed and are bank-owned.
On a national level, the Treasury Department, the Federal Housing Finance Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a call months ago for ideas for how to turn single-family foreclosed homes owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration into rental properties.
Last week in a white paper on the housing market that was delivered to Congress, the Federal Reserve said many bank-owned foreclosures “appear to be viable rental properties.”
Within the city of Chicago, armed with an almost 2-year-old law, those efforts have moved beyond pen and paper. In neighborhoods where condominium foreclosures have left entire buildings empty and created eyesores, the city has taken steps to turn condo units into apartments by selling entire buildings to investors and developers who will rehab them for rental.
The program is the result of amendments to the state’s Condominium Property Act that took effect in January 2010. The changes allow a municipality to petition a Circuit Court to allow a receiver to sell the distressed building as a whole. Owners of the units, which typically are lenders, receive a fractional share of the proceeds from a sale after liens are erased. After taking bids, a judge decides who the buyer of the building should be, a decision based not just on price but on the buyer’s financial resources, track record and building plans.
“It doesn’t help anyone, if we put all these resources in, if it’s going to wind up right back in court for drug activity or bad porches,” said Greg Janes, senior counsel in the city’s Law Department.
To date, about 150 Chicago condo buildings, from six-flats to a 36-unit building, are in the process of being converted into apartment buildings. Community Investment Corp., a nonprofit mortgage lender in Chicago that acts as the court-appointed receiver for the bulk of the properties, estimates that it has found more than 250 buildings so far that are salvageable and may qualify.
Many of the buildings are in their present state because of fraudulent mortgage activity. Others had legitimate developers who were financially stretched too thin and couldn’t complete their rehabs, or who fell victim to the housing crisis and weren’t able to sell all the units in a building.
“We’re trying to make use of these buildings instead of losing them,” said John “Jack” Markowski, president of Community Investment Corp. “All we want to do is put the property back together and restore it back to the rental housing stock of the city.”
Private-sector investors have been picking up foreclosure bargains and readying them for sale or rental for the past two years, and now the nation is seeing more policymakers get engaged in the process, said Zillow chief economist Stan Humphries.
“This is a very positive dynamic in the marketplace that heals the market,” he said. “It comes down to supply and demand. Right now we have a lot of supply on the purchase side and not a lot of demand. From an economic standpoint, it seems that you’d want to move some housing inventory from the purchase side to the rental side of the ledger.”