Most of the 65 controversial county-owned houses on Cook County Forest Preserve District are in need of urgent and major repairs, according to a report released Wednesday.
One of those, located at 139 Parkview Road in Riverside, has cracks in the foundation, exposed wiring and a garage that is not operational.
“That particular one, as far as I’m aware, is in particularly bad shape and should probably be torn down,” said Commissioner Anthony Peraica (R-16th), who is also a Riverside resident.
Last May, Commissioner Forrest Claypool lambasted the county for letting politically connected workers live for cheap on Cook County Forest Preserve District land. County workers and their families pay $225 or $450 a month to live in two-, three- or four-bedroom houses, some with hot tubs and pools, surrounded by woods.
In exchange for their cheap rent, the workers?”known as resident watchmen?”are responsible for looking out for wildfires and responding to problems that arise in the parks. The workers are on call around the clock during fire season and are trained to fight fires.
Claypool argued the watchmen should have to pay market rent for their homes.
Although his push was defeated last year, Cook County Board President John Stroger agreed to study the quality of the houses and make recommendations about increasing the rents.
So for the last two months, members of the Cook County Building and Zoning Department inspected all 65 houses. The report released Wednesday said five of the houses, all of them unoccupied, are in such bad shape that they need to be demolished. Among the worst five houses is a house at 1801 W. Ogden Ave. in LaGrange Park.
In addition, according to the report, 14 watchmen’s houses need “urgent repairs” like fixing faulty wiring or adding second exits; 19 need to have roofs or windows replaced and other major repairs; and 27 need minor repairs like replacing light fixtures or fixing sinks that drain too slowly.
The board will discuss demolition, repairs or raising rents in May.
Peraica is one of a handful of commissioners who has proposed that all rents be doubled immediately, and then rents could be adjusted once appraisals are completed on the houses.
But other commissioners argued that most of the houses are in so dilapidated, it wouldn’t be fair to raise the rents.
“You can’t charge people market rate rent if they’re living in a shack. That doesn’t make sense,” said Commissioner Bobbie Steele, who along with Commissioner Gregg Goslin, presented the report to the board. “I think if we go up on the rent with the condition that the homes are now in … we’re not going to have people wanting to live in these homes.”
Claypool said the report overstated the condition of the houses.
“What home in America doesn’t fit that description?” Claypool asked. “There’s always work that needs to be done on a home.”
Peraica said he would support getting rid of the watchmen system.
“They’re not fighting fires, they’re not doing anything,” Peraica said. “It’s simply a patronage boondoggle plan.”
But others, like Steele, defend the program and say the watchmen do prevent forest fires.
“We’ve seen what fires did in California,” Steele said. “If fire breaks out in one of our forest preserves, God forbid.”
Steve Mayberry, spokesman for the Forest Preserve District, which is operated by the County Board, said Stroger plans to get the homes appraised to determine what their rents should be, and hasn’t ruled out tearing down some homes.
Commissioner Larry Suffredin said he believes Stroger only commissioned the report to divert attention from the real issues.
“He’s got his buddies living in these houses,” Suffredin said. “Does he want to evict these people or double their rents? Of course not. It’s to make you look like you’re serious about doing something when you’re not planning to do anything,” Suffredin said.