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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Slowdown in Home Sales Slows Parents' Exodus to the Suburbs

From today's Chicago Crain's Business:

When Jill and Paul Syftestad's oldest daughter was ready to start school four years ago, they put their South Loop townhouse on the market and planned to move to the suburbs.

One offer fell through at the last minute and a second was well below their asking price. “We had our hearts set on moving,” says Ms. Syftestad, an IT project manager at a nursing association. “We were devastated. We pulled it off the market and decided to stay.”

The recession dramatically slowed the number of people making the trek to the suburbs for bigger houses, safer neighborhoods and better schools. Unable or unwilling to leave the city, a small but growing group of middle-class families are turning to Chicago's public and private schools, a development that holds both potential and peril for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his efforts to improve the school system.

“I've had lots of clients who thought they would be able to sell their condo and can't. So they are now trying to make it work” in city schools, says Christine Whitley, an education consultant who helps families through the Chicago Public Schools selection process. “They bought their condo way before they had kids and didn't really factor schools into the equation. They figured they could sell and move to a better neighborhood or move to the suburbs. Now they can't sell it, so they're trying to figure out options” in the city.

This week, anxious parents will find out whether their kids will get coveted slots in the city's selective-enrollment elementary schools, a process determined by test scores, or magnet schools, determined by lottery. Selective elementary school applications have increased by 50 percent in the past four years, dwarfing the 12 percent increase in high-school applications that has sparked so much concern in the past month as the city tweaked its selection criteria.

“People are trapped,” says Tina Feldstein, a broker at Southport Sotheby's International Realty in Chicago and president of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, a South Loop association. “If they sell, they'll take a major loss. They're not in a position to do it. Everyone's saying, ‘Next year, it will improve. Prices will get better.' In the meantime, they're forced to become involved in CPS schools.”

The slowdown in the decades-long procession to the suburbs provides Mr. Emanuel with the chance to bolster the city's middle class and make greater strides in improving CPS than his predecessor, Richard M. Daley.

This constituency—whether or not it wants to be in the city—has the skills and the clout to demand better schools and a personal stake in the outcome. Those factors could be game-changers in the struggle to turn around a system labeled the worst in the nation by the U.S. secretary of education in 1987.

But Mr. Emanuel will have to make hard choices at a time when resources are dwindling, and he must move quickly before the real estate market rebounds and more parents leave.

There's a huge opportunity that Rahm has to attract and keep families in the system who otherwise would have left,” says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. “It's going to come down to strategic choices: Do you make investments in education or policing to make neighborhoods safer?”

These new families are clamoring for more investment and putting pressure on local politicians.

“It's the No. 1 issue in my ward,” says Ameya Pawar, alderman for the 47th Ward on the city's North Side. “I hear about it all the time. Parents are trying to navigate CPS and get the best education for their kids as possible. At some point the market is going to come back. We need to figure out how to keep people here and get new people moving in. We've probably got three to five years.”

The increased demands put additional pressure on a city facing a severe budget squeeze. Chicago had to close deficits of more than $500 million annually in each of the past three years. Budget gaps in the school system have ranged from $475 million to $712 million. But the heightened attention also strengthens Mr. Emanuel's hand against the teachers union as he pushes for a longer school day, closes underperforming schools and supports charter schools.

“The question is how much political will there will be and whether there's so much pushback that people get cold feet,” Mr. Knowles says. “To do it at the scale they need, they'll have to enlist civic engagement in a much more significant way.”

Mr. Emanuel declined to be interviewed about how the changes in mobility are affecting city schools. Chicago schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, after initially agreeing to talk, turned down multiple attempts to speak with him over two weeks.

CPS Director of Media Affairs Robyn Ziegler released a statement that the school system is laboring to increase the seats in high-performing schools, lengthen the school day, create a more rigorous curriculum and develop better training for principals.

“It is part of our mission to engage these parents in a robust and meaningful way,” wrote Ms. Ziegler. “CPS has never truly engaged parents in this way, and we are working to break away from this status quo approach that has alienated parents from the process.”

Tarrah Cooper, the mayor's press secretary, released a statement that Mr. Emanuel says learning “starts at home with a dedicated parent committed to their child's education. In order for our children to succeed, every school must have an accountable principal, dedicated teachers and active parents.”

Mr. Pawar says the city knows it has an opportunity to keep families by improving the schools. He points to a recent decision to add specialty programs in science, technology, engineering and math at five high schools, including Lake View in his ward. The city teamed up with tech giants Motorola Solutions Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. to develop the programs.

“That was a tipping point,” the alderman says. “They're looking for ways to hang on to people and give them reasons to stay.”

Rebecca Labowitz, a parent who blogs about the school system at CPSObsessed.com, points to the district's newly formed Portfolio Office, which has community liaisons work with parent groups at individual schools.

Parental involvement is particularly effective at the elementary level. Activist parents raise money, expectations and standards. Some of the best-known examples are Alexander Graham Bell, Blaine, John C. Coonley and Nettelhorst elementary schools on the North Side. Nonprofit groups such as Friends of Coonley routinely raise more than $100,000 annually for extra teachers, equipment and programs such as ecology.

“Coonley was going be a school that was going to close,” says Mr. Pawar, whose ward is home to Coonley, Bell, Waters and Audubon schools. “Now it's one of the best schools in the city.”


The total number of people staying in the city who otherwise would have moved isn't huge: perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 a year over the past few years. But it's a big change in the trend line: CPS enrollment dropped significantly in the middle of the last decade but largely has been stable at about 400,000 since 2007-08, when the recession hit. Enrollment at the 10 largest suburban districts, which had been growing quickly, also generally has been flat since the recession began, according to data from the Illinois Board of Education.

During the last quarter-century, thousands of people flooded annually into suburban DuPage and Will counties, making them among the fastest-growing jurisdictions in the country. But when the recession hit, housing prices fell and job losses rose.

The number of people leaving Cook County for the collar counties dropped by an average of 35 percent between early 2007 and 2010, according to Internal Revenue Service data.

From the real estate market peak in 2005-06 until 2009-10, those moving from Cook to DuPage dropped by 25 percent, according to IRS data compiled for Crain's by Geoffrey Hewings and Chenxi Yu of the Regional Economics Application Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Movement to Kane County dropped by 37 percent, Lake County 38 percent, Will County 53 percent, McHenry County 54 percent and Kendall County 56 percent. After nearly quadrupling from 1997 to 2007, enrollment at Plainfield Schools in Will County flattened out, then dropped the past two years.

“People still want to move” to the suburbs, says Larry Reedy, an agent at L.W. Reedy Real Estate in Elmhurst. “But there are a lot of people stuck in their homes. For a large chunk of people, they just can't bring money to the closing table” to cover the difference between their loan amount and the lower sales price on their house.

There also is an increase in residents who want to stay in the city. Chicago, like other big cities, saw its population rise from 1990 to 2000 as 20- to 29-year-olds moved in search of nightlife, jobs and short commutes. But Chicago was the only one of the 10 largest U.S. cities to see its population fall between 2000 and 2010, dropping by 6.9 percent, Brookings Institution researcher William Fry said last week. Many big urban counties in the U.S. regained momentum at the end of the decade, outgrowing nearby suburban areas as the recession hit. The same general pattern can be seen for Cook County, though suburban growth here still remained slightly higher at the end of the decade.

“I have always said we'd stay in the city so long as the schools were working,” says Julie Kraft, a banker who works downtown and lives on the North Side and whose children go to Louis J. Agassiz School in Lakeview. “At this point, I could see myself staying in the city throughout their education. We never said outright that as soon as they go to school we'd have to be in the suburbs.”

Parochial schools are benefiting, too. Enrollment at Catholic elementary schools in Chicago is up in each of the past two school years, the first time that's happened since 1965. Suburban enrollment fell by 5.3 percent over two years, according to the Archdiocese of Chicago, mirroring a national decline in Catholic school enrollment.

One of the fastest-growing schools is Old St. Mary's in the South Loop, where the Syftestads' daughter Olivia is a third-grader. She started kindergarten in a CPS school but transferred because of large class sizes, Ms. Syftestad says, highlighting one of the challenges facing the mayor.

“We're OK through elementary school. We'll stay in the city as long as we can, provided we can navigate through CPS” for high school, she says. “If not, we'll have to make the move. It's a question we talk about all the time. We have about three years to figure it out.”

Independent private schools also are growing. Median enrollments rose by 11 percent from 2007 to 2011 at the dozen independent Chicago private schools—which includes Latin School of Chicago in the Gold Coast, Francis W. Parker School in Lincoln Park and the University of Chicago Laboratory School in Hyde Park—that are part of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States. Francis Parker and Latin have seen upticks in applications in recent years even as the recession caused some students to leave.


One of the most immediate effects of the slowdown in suburban flight is the soaring interest in the city's selective-enrollment schools. CPS has received 30,608 applications for 4,200 seats next year. The sharpest increase came in elementary-school programs, where 12,445 students are chasing 1,200 spots.

“The competition has really gone up,” says Christine Virgen, a North Side resident whose daughter is waiting to hear whether she'll be accepted into one of the city's selective-enrollment academic centers for seventh- and eighth-graders. “After seeing what's happened with high-school kids who didn't get into their first, second or third choice, we're worried.”

Ms. Virgen was one of 39 parents at a recent seminar held at Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square by Chicago School GPS, a consulting firm launched by three North Side moms to help parents navigate Chicago's public and private schools.  

Such knowledge is in higher demand than ever. Neighborhood Parents Network, which helps about 5,400 families meet the challenges of parenting in the city, says it now holds eight seminars a year about choosing public or private schools. It used to offer three.

“They fill up in about an hour,” says Sarah Cobb, executive director of the 32-year-old nonprofit.


12:05 pm cdt 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Foreclosure Filings Surge in the Last Year
From today's Chicago Tribune:

The number of homes in the Chicago metropolitan area receiving foreclosure filings fell 8.5 percent in February from January, but spiked 43.2 percent from February 2011, RealtyTrac said in a report being released Thursday.

With documentation issues that had slowed foreclosure filings here and nationally last year resolved, a continued rise in filings is forecast for this year, RealtyTrac said.

In the Chicago area, 12,587 homes received a filing last month, or one in every 302 homes. That was down from 13,750 in January and up from 8,788 in February 2011.

“Going forward I think we’re going to see more year-over-year increases in Chicago from last year,” said RealtyTrac spokesman Daren Blomquist. “That trend has started and it’s something we’ve been expecting because of what we believe were artificially low numbers last year.”

Statewide, 13,298 homes received a filing last month, down 7.32 percent from January, when 14,349 homes received a filing, and up 38.6 percent from 9,592 in February 2011. One in every 398 homes received a filing, ranking the state sixth.

Nationally, the number of homes receiving filings slid 2 percent from January to 206,900, and fell 8 percent from February 2011. But that trend isn’t expected to continue.

“February’s numbers point to a gradually rising foreclosure tide as some of the barriers that have been holding back foreclosures are removed,” RealtyTrac Chief Executive Officer Brandon Moore said in a statement. “Although national foreclosure activity was pushed lower by decreases in a handful of larger states, 21 states posted annual increases in foreclosure activity, the most states with annual increases since November 2010.”

4:12 pm cdt 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Real Estate Investor Taking a Long Look at Local Market

From today's Chicago Tribune:

Take a look at the homebuilding that's going on around the Chicago area and you'll see that most of it is infill development, teardowns and multifamily construction, particularly of apartments.

Avanti Properties Group is taking a longer-term view. The
Winter Park, Fla.-based real estate investment company is betting the suburban fringes will become popular again, and it's doing more than dipping its toe into the local land market.

In mid-February, Avanti acquired 497 acres at the Grand Reserve subdivision in Yorkville and plans to develop its 2,002 lots with Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Atlantic, its partner in the project. The master-planned development had been started by Moser Enterprises and Pasquinelli Development but was returned to lender Bank of America, which received $10.8 million from Avanti.

Two weeks later, Avanti announced the purchase of 680 acres and 1,665 lots at Springbank, a largely residential development in Plainfield. Ocean Atlantic will act as development partner on that project too. The project had been started by MAF Developments, a real estate subsidiary of National
City Bank. Avanti paid PNC Bank, National City's successor, $12.4 million for the land.

The investments represent Avanti's entry into Illinois, a step it has mulled taking for 12 years, according to Avanti principal Marvin Shapiro. But the land deals aren't expected to translate into building permits being pulled anytime soon.

"That's really two (deals) in a 12-year period, but it looks like two in a three-week period," Shapiro said. "Our business is all about buying land that we think will mature in a three- to 10-year period. I'm bullish in Chicago, but I'm not bullish about what's going to happen in the next six months or year or two."

Avanti's playbook is to buy land from lenders or from developers whose investments are under water. In other words, they look for opportunities that are more steal than deal.

"We're countercyclical people," Shapiro said. "Usually when people are running away is the time to make your best buy, and that's the same with housing. Today, it's a great time to buy. Where else is there going to be growth?"

Plenty of investors continue to look for opportunities in the Chicago market, but several are focused on accumulating smaller projects closer to Chicago that are likely to sell and generate a profit quicker, said Dan Flanagan of Flanagan Realty.

Grand Reserve and Springbank "are probably the two biggest residential lot deals out there in the market," Flanagan said. "They're both challenging deals. They're both on the fringe of growth."

Shapiro said the firm continues to look for land in the Chicago market.

Insurance premium changes.
Come April 1, homebuyers who opt for a Federal Housing Administration-backed loan may be in for a bit of sticker shock.

The agency last month announced a new premium structure as part of the effort to shore up the sagging finances of the agency, and buyers of single-family homes will foot the bill.

The FHA said that, as required by the Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011, it will increase the annual mortgage insurance premium by 0.10 percent, beginning April 1. And for loans that are greater than $625,500, it has decided to add another 0.35 percent to that annual premium as of June 1.

Separately, the agency said it will boost the upfront mortgage insurance premium, from 1 percent of the loan amount to 1.75 percent, effective April 1. The premium still can be rolled into the loan amount.

The changes, according to the FHA, will add more than $1 billion to the agency's Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund by the end of fiscal year 2013.

What do the increases mean for borrowers? According to an FHA analysis detailed by Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication, the monthly payments of borrowers who make a 3.5 percent down payment will go up by $25 a month, while closing costs will rise by almost $1,500.

"I'm torn," said Ken Perlmutter, owner of Perl Mortgage Inc. "If we want to get out of the problem loans and get this real estate back into the people's hands, anything you do to tighten up real estate doesn't help. The other argument is you need to keep the FHA solvent. If it doesn't stay solvent, you're going to go to a world where the minimum down payment is 5 percent."


11:56 am cdt 

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