Vacant and Abandoned Building FAQ

While working on this project, I had several conversations with Bill McCaffrey from the Chicago Department of Buildings and Cristina Saladana from Cook County Commissioner Fritchey's office. I decided it may be useful to put all the information I found out in to a Frequently Asked Questions-style document.

What is the difference between an abandoned and vacant building?

An abandoned building is a building that has no identifiable owner. This could be due to the owner not being able to maintain or pay for the building and deciding to walk away, or due to the owner dying with no known inheritors.

A vacant building is an empty building that is not in use, but the owner is known. In most cases the building is foreclosed or owned by a bank.

How does the City of Chicago and Cook County identify a vacant or abandoned building?

Buildings are identified by 311 reports or by city officials.

When a building is reported, the city sends out inspectors to make sure it is secured, and if it is not, issues violations to owners (including the mortgage owner). See below on fees and penalties regarding this.

What is the process for reporting an vacant or abandoned building?

Vacant or abandoned buildings can be reported to the City of Chicago using their 311 reporting service.

Does the City of Chicago or Cook County have publicly accessible data on ownership?

Cook County keeps track of property documents that are filed at the Recorder of Deeds office, the real ownership of a property is in the Deed of the property, and these deeds change hands when property changes hands. When a bank owns the property and a loan (mortgage) is being paid by a future owner of said property, the mortgage payee is the one in charge of property taxes and his/her name will be in the deed along with the banks name, these two owners are known as grantor and grantee of the mortgage loan. Once the loan is repaid, the bank transfers the Deed of the property in the sole owners name.

To find all documents associated with a property, there is a currently a three-step process:

  1. Search by Property Index Number (PIN): To find a PIN based an address, you need to visit the Cook County Assessor's site. If you do not know the exact address, you can search by neighborhood and open each PIN to look at a photo and identify the exact property.
  2. Use PIN on Treasurer's website: Once you have a PIN number, if you want to know who pays the property taxes of the property in question, if they are up to date on said taxes and the type of exemptions (rebates of sort to the property taxes) they take on said property, you can look it up on the Cook County Treasurer's site
  3. Use PIN on Recorder of Deeds website: With the same PIN number you can find records on ownership using the Recorder of Deeds website.

Fun fact: If a property changes hands from private citizen to private citizen (say parent to son or daughter) the transfer of the deed gets recorded at Recorder of Deeds office, but that doesn't mean that the Treasurer or the Assessor find out, nor that the info gets updated automatically.

[Taken from conversation with Cristina Saladana]

Note from Derek: The above services exist on 3 different sites because they are run by 3 different elected officials in Cook County. That being said, having all this data in different places makes it very difficult for people to use. One of my earlier goals for this project was to figure out a way to conveniently combine them. It ended up not being possible, so instead I explained the process as it exists now as best I could. It is my hope that Cook County will combine all these resources in one place, or better yet, release the raw data on their data portal.

Are there fees/penalties for not maintaining a vacant building?

Vacant buildings must register with the City of Chicago for a one time fee of $250. The registration fee offsets the city's cost of sending fire, police, streets & sanitation workers to assess the building. The City of Chicago website has more information on this process.

Vacant buildings must also have all of their entrances secured according to this ordinance. If vacant building is not up to code, can receive penalties of up to $1000/day.

[Taken from conversation with Bill McCaffrey]

Are there fees/penalties for abandoning a building?

The County doesn't assess fees or penalties for abandoning a building as long as the property taxes keep being paid. In fact, if the owner applies for it, a reduction in property taxes applies for abandonment. The amount of the reduction depends on the property and length of abandonment. Owners are better off renting the property to recoup the property tax expense than just applying for a reduction of taxes though.

If the property taxes are not paid in time, property abandoned or not, the taxes are sold as debt to outside companies that now have a claim on the property and eventually could actually own the property for the cost of just the taxes owed.

[Taken from conversation with Cristina Saladana]

Does the City or County reclaim abandoned properties? Do Banks?

Cook County only reclaims the unpaid property taxes by selling the debt to outside companies. The City of Chicago can only take a property from someone via eminent domain (potentially a long legal process) and they only do that if there is something to be gained by the city. One reason could be reactivating payment of property taxes, but again, if the property taxes are being paid, even if the property is abandoned indefinitely, the city won't take it. Banks take back their property if the owner doesn't pay the actual loan via foreclosure.

[Taken from conversation with Cristina Saladana]

Are there any laws against occupying an abandoned building?

Occupying an abandoned or vacant building you do not own or rent falls under Trespassing.

Is there a place or a number for reporting crime/squatters in an abandoned building?

There is no special service for reporting crimes regarding abandoned buildings. If you wish to report a crime, call 9-1-1.


A project by Derek Eder