Vacant homes plague Washington Park; census shows one in three empty

News-DemocratFebruary 22, 2011 

You don't have to tell Rafael Pinado that about one in three houses in Washington Park is vacant.

He can see a couple of them from the front yard of his Audubon Avenue home, and open lots where 14 homes once stood surround his family's property, he said.

"Right now here (property) is cheap," Pinado said. "But it is a hard way to live."

According to census data released this month, Washington Park has the highest percentage of vacant homes in the metro-east and the 15th highest vacancy rate in the state out of 1,367 census-designated places.

The village's vacancy rate of 30.2 percent is about double that of its similarly impoverished neighbors in East St. Louis and Centreville and four times the rate of nearby Fairmont City, where Pinado's fellow Hispanics now form the majority of the population.

While Washington Park did see a rise in its Hispanic population the last 10 years, according to the census, many Mexicans have moved out, Pinado said.

"They are scared to live in this area," he said, alluding to the city's crime problems.

Pinado blamed the vacancy problem on a legal system that takes months for a landlord, like himself, to evict tenants who do not pay their rent.

Once the tenants are evicted, landlords have to spend money rehabilitating what was damaged in the home. During this interim period when no one is living in the homes, many are destroyed in acts of arson by angry tenants or by fires set by homeless people looking for a place to stay, he said. In some cases, landlords don't have enough money to rebuild the homes.

While the village's numerous strip clubs remain open, almost any block in the village's pothole-ridden roads has a former home or business that has become an eyesore. Buildings with collapsed roofs, trash-strewn yards, falling porches and boarded up windows are common.

Mayor James Jones is certainly not blind to the blight. In fact, he had challenged the 2009 mayoral election because of voting irregularities related to votes coming from vacant buildings and lots.

"Our citizens are just getting fed up with what's happening in Washington Park and are just moving out," Jones said.

The village's population dropped by 21.5 percent from 5,345 to 4,196 in the last 10 years, according to the census.

Pastor Robert Freeman, whose church runs Trinity Outreach and Family Life Center in Washington Park, had three reasons for the village's high vacancy rate: rising crime, predatory lenders and not enough jobs.

Freeman argued that the city's lack of a bank left its residents at the will of predatory lenders who charge "astronomical" loan rates. When people can't pay the rate, "then the homes become vacant," Freeman said.

Washington Park resident Melanie Gosa said the vacant homes makes the area look "impoverished."

"It kind of sends a signal that the government isn't doing what it is supposed to do," she said.

Jones has no argument with that. When asked why the city's vacancy home rate had doubled in the last 10 years, he blamed years of political corruption.

"Because of political mismanagement. No ideas. No vision," said Jones, who served more than a decade on the village's board of trustees before taking over as mayor in September. "That's what we dealt with for some years. Theft and corruption, that's been our downfall in Washington Park."

Jones mentioned a undeveloped plan about getting federal money and setting up a committee to address the vacancy housing issue. He said the city has torn down 30 vacant homes since he came into office but realizes more work is needed to be done and asked for patience.

"I know this village can come back to life," he said.

Contact reporter Kevin Bersett at kbersett@bnd.com or 239-2535.

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