By Teke WigginThe vacant home next to Deborah Jackson's house has been an eyesore and magnet of blight for much longer than the Chicago homeowner would care to remember. The roof of the empty townhouse, which is connected to Jackson's, is shredded and caved in, causing water to leak through Jackson's walls. Overgrown bushes and bramble peek over the property's four-foot fence, and possums and stray cats -- instead of a nice family -- live inside. The derelict property, which has been vacant for the better part of 15 years, even appears to pose safety risks. Jackson's granddaughter was once struck in the face by a detached piece of the home's roof; sometimes trespassers pay unsettling visits; and the home is infested with snakes. "Anytime I see people or have heard people, I would always call the police," she said. "I'm looking at a jungle out here. I can't sit on my patio. My grandkids don't want to visit me because of the snakes."
The spotlight is usually on the economic impact of vacant homes: their tendency to drag down prices by selling at steep discounts and bloating housing supply. But sometimes less explored are the intangible effects of the empty properties on neighboring homeowners. Magnets of Blight and Crime Ed Jacob, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, said vacant homes can burden neighbors -- some of whom are teetering on the brink of foreclosure themselves -- and even put them in harm's way. "They become magnets of crime. They'll get stripped of all their copper," Jacob said of the vacant properties. "People use them to stash their drugs. It's a huge psychological effect on homeowners who are hanging on." Jackson is no stranger to this phenomenon. Thieves looted a neighboring abandoned property to her left -- a different home than the one that's infested with snakes. Authorities later told her that there was a danger of a gas explosion happening at the home because the burglars had removed the furnace. "They took everything that wasn't nailed down," she said. Vacant properties can cast such a dark cloud over their communities that, when those homes are finally purchased, it's sometimes cause for celebration. Ihsan Atta of Brookfield, Wis., recalled living next to a vacant home for months that was teeming with rodents and had overgrown bushes. People living in the neighborhood had become so put off by the decrepit property that when an investment firm snapped it up recently, neighbors rejoiced. "One neighbor went by -- I thought she was so happy, she was going to kiss me," said Marty Boardman, chief financial officer of Rising Sun Capital Group, the home investor that bought the property. Tenant Installs Surveillance, Now Faces Eviction Snakes, Alligators and Other Exotic Animals Found Inside Brooklyn Apartment 20 Regions Overrun by Foreclosures