When I took my second look at my house – prior to making an offer – I noticed that the extra-large house next door had a large parking area, with space for four cars. Upon further inspection, I noticed a sign designating that parking was for tenants only, and multiple entrances. I thought for a moment that maybe living next to an apartment building – four single bedroom units – may not be ideal, but decided it was fine.
I was wrong.
That apartment building has caused misery and frustration during my time in my home. Since it’s old and in poor repair, the units are cheap – and the landlord hasn’t been very selective among his tenants. About four months after I moved in, it went on the market. I hoped someone would buy it, clean it up, maybe deconvert a couple units. The City of Elgin offers a very generous grant to people willing to buy these old homes that have been carved into apartments and restore them to single family homes. I even mentioned the program to the listing agent, encouraging her to pass along the information to interested parties. (If I read the information correctly, a buyer could get up to $90,000 – $30,000 per unit removed – if they converted the four unit property into a single family home. Heck, if they wanted to make it a duplex, they would still get $60,000.)
No such luck. The new owner continued managing from afar, renting to crack dealers who brought with them a parade of traffic, creepy crackheads and, one summer night, gunshots. One morning I even found a drunk/high/impaired man passed out on my front lawn! In conjunction with a small candy shop across the street, things got very bad for awhile, with large crowds loitering on my block, passing the time as they waited for their customers. I was afraid to walk home late at night, though they did seem like friendly crack dealers, calling hello and commenting on the weather.
Winter came, and things improved. It was far too cold to conduct business outside, and though traffic continued, it was much sparser and quicker.
With the spring, though, the crowd reappeared on the first nice day, as did many of the customers. One of the main dealers spent his time sitting on a milk crate out front, waiting for cars to pull up, then exchanging product for cash. Litter abounded, and one of my neighbors put a trash can in her front yard, hoping to alleviate the problems. Things got worse than the previous summer, with a more serious tone about the sheer volume of the problem. Until one day – my birthday – when I came home to a drug raid in progress. Five people were arrested, and my neighbor’s young son asked innocently why the police were interested in the large bag of flour.
After that, things got better for a couple weeks. But then, one by one, the crowd returned, minus the former tenants. The milk crate throne was restored, and business returned nearly to its previous level. The landlord, anxious to keep his rental income, rented one of the newly vacated apartments to the buddy of the dealer now sitting in jail. And another vacant unit to one of their friends. Despite neighborhood involvement, the landlord of the apartment building and the candy shop decided they preferred rental income to neighborhood quality and safety – an easy decision to make for an absentee landlord.
Fall came, and one of the new tenants next door was arrested for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, vacating an apartment. A family moved in, with three small children in a one bedroom apartment. The winter again stopped the crowds, though the dealing continued, quietly, from one of the apartments.
The spring thaw brought the most blatantly open dealing I’d seen. I’d be out mowing the lawn on a Sunday morning and would watch three transactions, right in front of me. Helped by easy access to major roads and a hungry customer base, business even picked up, with new, younger faces doing the brunt of the work.
Then it stopped. The candy store closed, and the crowds disappeared into the summer night. It was quiet. Kids started playing in the street, biking and playing soccer until their parents called them in. It became a stereotypical 1950s Midwest suburban block, plus a bit of diversity. We spent more time outside, chatting with our neighbors. One of the kids threw a ball and hit one of our screens, prompting a stern talking-to from his dad in a very Dennis the Menace moment. The other kids chalked hopscotch grids on our sidewalks. We held a barbecue and invited our neighbors and their kids.
Sure, we had minor annoyances. The boyfriend of one of the tenants kept slamming his oversize van into our fence as he tried to park in the tight space, knocking loose several slats and completely destroying two of them. We put our fence plans on hold, hating to invest the time and money. Occasionally, loud, thumping music rattled our windows and the pictures on the wall.
Still, the building next door was crumbling. Built in the 1860s, the foundation was uneven, the paint was peeling, and some gutters had come unhinged. You could see damage on the roof. Apparently the inside wasn’t much better, and neighbors reported major plumbing problems and an unresponsive landlord. They stopped paying rent. He went into foreclosure. One of the tenants began holding moving sales every weekend, sitting on the front lawn selling anything and everything, leaving things that didn’t sell on the curb. Don and I talked about trying to raise the capital – and leverage city grants – to buy it out of foreclosure and rehab it, a difficult proposition given the credit crisis.
Finally, the city came to respond to tenant complaints about a lack of heat and plumbing. And then they condemned the building, slapping red tags on all three entrances. Monday, the sheriff came by and made sure it was vacant. Tuesday, the owner – no longer a landlord – piled everything left on the front lawn. The garbage crew only picked up things in cans, leaving piles of clothes and assorted junk outside. Rain lessened the probability that scavengers would be interested in the ancient TV, coffee table, baby furniture and other detritus of four families’ lives.
Wednesday night, I saw a shadow, peering into the windows next door. By the time I looked again and grabbed the phone to call the police, he was gone. Or maybe it was just my imagination.
That makes three vacant houses on our block. One, gutted by fire, has been mired in insurance investigations and a divorce settlement for nearly two years. Another, a rental home, is between tenants, but at least the owner stops by periodically to trim the grass and collect the political mailers off the front step. I only hope that the one next door is tended to and not allowed to dilapidate further, and that any resolution is quick. I’d rather it be torn down and cleared for a new home – that matches the neighborhood’s character, of course – than sit for years, vacant, potentially drawing the former crackheads. I plan to be vigilant and stay on the city for answers and action.
But it’s just so damn frustrating Every time the neighborhood starts improving – and we’ve come so far – something happens.