The Cook County Land Bank is chipping away at abandoned properties one house at a time


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A abandoned house in Englewood photographed in 2013 - JESSICA KOSCIELNIAK / CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  • Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times
  • A abandoned house in Englewood photographed in 2013

Imagine a county agency that doesn't rely on taxpayer dollars to operate. And not only that, but it also generates wealth and helps revitalize struggling neighborhoods.

It's not a fairytale, but how boosters describe the successes of the Cook County Land Bank Authority, now in its third year of operating.

The land bank's purpose is twofold: to buy and resell abandoned property for rehab or redevelopment, and to clear land of blighted structures and revert it to redevelopment or community uses like parks and gardens. And since it's inception in 2013, the land bank has acquired 335 properties in Chicago and suburban Cook County—mostly blighted, abandoned homes, but also vacant lots, commercial buildings, and industrial sites—in an effort to reverse the devastation of the foreclosure crisis and resulting population loss.

Of those 335 properties—which the land bank mostly acquires through donations from banks and individuals—190 have been sold to developers for rehab. Of those, nine have then been resold to new owners.

This may not seem like a lot, but the land bank began acquiring properties two years ago with just a $4.5 million grant and a landscape of more than 51,000 abandoned addresses throughout the county—one main result of the subprime mortgage crisis.

The land bank has the authority to acquire abandoned properties tied up in foreclosure proceedings or weighed down with back taxes and other fines, wipe their financial slates clean, then sit on them them until an interested buyer comes along.

Such intervention makes the property much more attractive to potential buyers. Without it, a buyer could face significant financial risks buying the property—not only is it abandoned, potentially dilapidated, and likely located in a less-than-economically-robust community, but any back taxes, city fines, or money owed to utility providers could add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of the acquisition.

And without market pressures, "we have the patience to meet the market," says land bank executive director Rob Rose, who took over when the land bank's first director, Brian White, stepped down after one year on the job.

Normally, if a redevelopment company wants to acquire a foreclosed property, it would face many months of court proceedings before it could get to work on rehabbing the home and turning a profit from its resale. Because the land bank is a government agency and not a business, it can absorb the cost of the waiting.

The nine land bank properties that have thus far completed the "full cycle" from abandoned to inhabited are located in Avalon Park, Grand Crossing, South Shore, Chicago Lawn, and in suburban Hillside. According to Rose, each home appreciated in value by at least $100,000 between its transfer to the land bank and its resale, in rehabbed form, to a new owner.

According to the DePaul University Institute for Housing Studies, which tracks data collected by the U.S. Postal Service, as of September of 2015 the number of abandoned addresses in Cook County dropped to around 42,500. (The USPS has changed its data collection methods over the last year, so the institute says it can't vouch for more recent numbers.)

But that recovery has been uneven, and there are still some blocks in Chicago that have only one or two occupied houses. From the start, the land bank had to choose where to invest their limited dollars: the hardest hit communities, or ones on the verge of having too many vacant buildings to attract new buyers.

"Strong markets don't need the bank's involvement," Rose says. Neither do communities that are experiencing gentrification or market-driven revitalization. On the other hand, "really weak markets need more resources than the land bank can bring to bear," Rose says, arguing that it doesn't make financial sense to purchase buildings on blocks overwhelmed by abandoned properties.

The land bank's intervention also levels the playing field in the rehab market, because smaller mom-and-pop developers can now access these properties. "We're changing the types of people who get access to rehabbing and developing," says county commissioner Bridget Gainer, who led the effort to create the land bank. "It used to be only companies that had enough cash flow that could withstand the two-year foreclosure process." (The average length of foreclosure proceedings in Cook County is now 600 days.)

Now, smaller local real estate developers and rehabbers (including non-profit entities) can afford to invest in vacant properties. Rose says that the land bank selects the middleman buyer carefully: "I would hate to see us do all this work with a [property] and two or three years later it's closed again."

Husband and wife team Jason and Esther Williams own Ultimate Real Estate Group, a south-side brokerage and development company handpicked by Rose to buy, rehab, and resell one of the land bank's first available single-family homes. The two-bedroom house is located on a corner lot in Avalon Park.

"I was very familiar with the Avalon Park neighborhood and I had done about three different renovations already in that exact neighborhood," says Jason Williams. "I knew that it was an attractive area for families."

When they first saw the home it had been vacant for years and needed extensive repairs. "Basically all the mechanicals were cut off in the home-—electrical, no water at all," says Williams. They bought the house from the land bank for just $43,000.

In five months, Williams and his team spent $94,000 and transformed the house, upgrading all the plumbing and finishes, adding three extra bedrooms, two bathrooms, and finishing the basement.

In 2015 Williams sold the house to a family for $220,000. Since then, he has purchased two more properties from the land bank, both located in far-south-side Washington Heights.

Working with the land bank has been "a great experience," says Williams, adding that "our main objective is trying to restore the south side," where he and his wife both grew up.

Their goal is to bring a "suburban feel" to houses in the city and stimulate an interest in families to remain. Williams says the south side's sturdy bungalows are also a big draw: "They're brick structures that can last a lifetime."

All of the profits generated by selling homes to companies like the Williams's is reinvested back into buying more properties in need to rescue, Rose explains.

Recently, Illinois received $269 million from the Hardest Hit Fund—federal dollars which will be used to help families avoid losing their homes through foreclosure as well as expand the state's blight-reduction programs. The land bank will get a portion of that money (though it's not yet clear how much) to carry out demolitions of dilapidated structures including abandoned industrial sites.

Gainer explains that the demolition of old factories and warehouses can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and their rehab is rarely viable for modern needs. "We do that stuff so differently now that the cost of rehab far outpaces the the cost of resale," she says.

Instead, these sites, sometimes vacant for decades, are like "big albatrosses around the necks of these communities," says Gainer. They make neighborhoods unattractive for new development and occupy land that could be used to build new structures to serve community needs. The commissioner sees the Hardest Hit Funds "as a once-in-a generation opportunity to reboot some of these communities that have the vestiges of an old economy."

The land bank's ambitious goals and track record on following through with its mission has earned praise from a wide array of community organizations.

Rachel Johnston is the director of public policy at the Chicago Rehab Network, a nonprofit coalition of community based organizations and nonprofit developers that had been calling for the creation of a land bank for decades. "Considering the amount of property that needs to be dealt with I think they're doing great so far," Johnston says. "It's just a real hopeful thing to happen."

Willie "J.R." Fleming, co-founder and director of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, says the land bank has put his group in the unusual position of having nothing to protest. The campaign gained notoriety in 2013 when its members occupied vacant homes and fixed them up for use by homeless families. Gainer brought the campaign into the planning for the land bank at its inception.

"They've been very proactive in reaching out to community groups," Fleming says. "They've been very proactive in having community meetings, and they've been very transparent to say the least." Fleming says he isn't used to such openness to collaboration from government entities, and is particularly pleased that the land bank is focusing its efforts in south and west side communities without becoming an instrument for gentrification.

"You can't just acquire 50 properties from the land bank and just sit on them for three years," he says. "We're thankful that the land bank was conscious of that. We can't say they're motivated by properties in affluent communities."

The land bank's inventory can be seen here, although for now, it's not selling homes directly to individuals who wish to rehab and live in them—the agency is planning a pilot program to do so by next summer. Rose and Gainer hope this will open a new avenue to revitalize communities and provide wider access to homeownership through the county.

"Three years isn't overnight, but it's pretty quick to create that type of operation," Gainer says. "Yes, the problem [of vacancies] is enormous, and yes, it seems insurmountable, but we're chipping away at it."


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