This was one of five stories from a series published in The Daily Journal print edition Jan. 8 and Jan. 15, 2011.

The number of vacant housing units in Kankakee County grew by four at a foreclosure auction Wednesday. Held at the Kankakee County Courthouse, the homes were represented as file folders with handwritten addresses and the names of those who were losing them on each.

* Tammy Meents, 153 N. Entrance Ave., Kankakee.

* Jacques Logan, 220 S. Cannon Ave., Kankakee.

* Julie Cobb, 385 S. Wall

St., Kankakee.

* Stephanie Dau, 1323 Peacock Lane, Bradley.

All four were sold.

"I'm just rolling into the aftermath," said Shannon Lowey, Kankakee County sheriff's deputy, who is in charge of evictions, foreclosure auctions and, on occasion, helping stranded motorists. "It was in 2008 when it really hit."

In the past decade, the number of vacant housing units has jumped 58 percent, according to the latest estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau. In total, nearly 9 percent of all residential dwellings in Kankakee County are abandoned or unoccupied.

Local officials don't find it surprising.

"We knew the (vacancy) numbers would increase," said Mike Van Mill, Kankakee County planning director and president/CEO of the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County. "We knew what foreclosures were doing."

Rhonda Tatom, president of the Kankakee County Association of Realtors, said 625 single-family houses were sold in 2010. Sixty-four of those sales were foreclosures and 67 were short sales.

Tatom said there are 57 foreclosurers and 67 short sales on the market right now. A short sale is when the homeowner sells the property for the amount left on the mortgage in an effort to get out from under the loan.

Concerning the 2010 sales, Tatom said that number is low, especially when compared to only a few years ago when houses were moving much more rapidly.

Tatom said the number of listings is also sharply down. Only months ago, there were 1,200 to 1,400 active listings. That's a situation Tatom can't explain.

"It's down quite a bit that's for sure. And I have no clue as to why it's down," she said.

Foreclosures and the slowly recovering economy have created great numbers of empty houses everywhere in Kankakee County, and for that matter, throughout Illinois and the nation. In Kankakee County, unemployment, an aging housing stock and the housing bubble that burst are all to blame, local officials say.

Breaking it down

Among the 11 municipalities within Kankakee County, Hopkins Park had the highest percentage of housing vacancies at 14.7 percent. Momence has the second-highest rate at 13.9 percent and then Kankakee with 12.6 percent.

All three are older communities that have greater issues because of the age of the housing, said Cliff Cross, planning director for the city of Kankakee.

"We are an older community. Our houses are older. Renovations are more difficult," Cross said. "Frankly, many people think it's easier to build new or move."

Van Mill said a healthy community will always have some vacant housing, but the numbers have gotten too high.

"The question becomes 'What are some things we can do to encourage investment in our housing stock?'" Van Mill said. "Desperate times require desperate measures."

Kankakee has been demolishing older homes, but the city is starting to shift its focus. Rather than demolishing individual properties, the city is moving toward demolishing entire clusters of vacant properties, Cross said.

Clusters of vacant lots would provide greater development potential, Cross said.

The strategy is important in revitalizing the city. Lou Mansfield, business instructor at Kankakee Community College, said vacant housing not only leads to increases in crime, but decreases neighboring property values.

Van Mill said reinvestment could be stimulated by creating enterprise zones in areas struck by declining housing. Inside an enterprise zone, sales taxes on building materials could be eliminated. Property taxes can also be abated on a limited basis as well.

"I like the idea of cleaning out an area," Van Mill said. "That creates an impact and builds momentum."

Light at end of the tunnel

Unemployment is perhaps the strongest factor behind the growing number of vacant housing units.

Cross said housing is directly tied to unemployment, and with Kankakee County continually being near the top of Illinois' jobless list, Cross said the city's nearly 13 percent vacancy rate is expected.

Cross said house vacancy is typically two-thirds of the unemployment rate. As of November, Kankakee County's jobless rate was 12.1 percent -- the fifth-highest rate in Illinois -- and the city's unemployment mark was 15.9 percent at the time.

But Mansfield said all is not lost. He said there are signs the economy may be finally turning. He points to the stock market. He points to cash reserves many businesses are waiting to invest. When the money comes, housing will be abundant, and at good prices, he said.

The housing boom reached its peak in 2005, when there were 790 new housing starts in Kankakee County. That number plummeted to 97 in 2009 and to 72 in the first three quarters of 2010, according to the latest figures from the Home Builders Association of Kankakee.

The glut of houses built during the housing boom means prices will allow the opportunity for first-time homebuyers to enter the market, something most couldn't do when prices were high, Mansfield said.

"If the economy improves and people get jobs, they look for houses. Eventually the supply and the demand will swing back," Mansfield said. "The economy never goes straight forever."

Jon Krenek contributed to this report.