Cook County is home to the nation’s third largest city, as well as some of the deepest economic craters left by the ongoing housing crisis. Some 40,000 vacant units, many of them underwater, restrain economic development in the second-most populous county in the U.S.
Now, following similar efforts underway in Kansas City, northeast Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, Atlanta, and Michigan, Cook County will establish a redevelopment authority aimed at stabilizing the region’s housing market.
The Cook County Board’s finance committee approved a plan to create a countywide land bank on Jan. 15, with all present members voting yes. That committee’s membership is identical to the full County Board, which approved it unanimously the next day.
“We want to stem the rate of decline and the spread of blight that is happening not just in low-income communities,” said Herman Brewer, bureau chief of the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development, “but middle-income and high-income communities where you’ve got abandoned McMansions.”
The roughly $15 million in seed money needed to start the operation will come from local foundations, not the county. Officials expect future activities will be self-funded, perhaps through property sales and rentals. Details will be hashed out over the next year, as the entity’s first expenditures go toward hiring a staff. After that the organization, which will be independent of County Board leadership, will begin to acquire property, forgive back taxes and vet prospective buyers who can credibly promise productive use for the land they wish to acquire.
“The Land Bank will be an utter failure if homelessness and affordable housing is not addressed,” said County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, who took the lead on promoting the measure. Gainer said it typically takes more than 500 days for a property to move through the foreclosure process, from the first filing to the issuing of a new title.
Foreclosure rates in the county are often above Illinois' average and far above the national average, and much of that activity is concentrated in the city’s south suburbs, as well as Chicago’s poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South and West sides. Boarded-up homes can have an adverse ripple effect on property values in their immediate area; the land bank will, in part, aim to reverse that trend.
“We have all seen the effects of absentee landlords and predatory lenders,” said Sharon Louis, a 50-year resident of Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, at the finance committee’s Jan. 15 hearing. Louis works with the South Shore Sustainability Collaborative, one of many community organizations whose work was acknowledged by the board during the meeting’s public comment period.
The testimony focused on housing, but economic development opportunities also received considerable mention. Brian Bernadoni, representing the Associations of Realtors for both Chicago and Illinois at the hearing, noted that his group’s support is a departure from their positions in the past. Talk of stimulating private sector investment, he said, changed their opinion.
That does not mean the land bank will be a service of the realtor community. “I’m constantly telling people,” Brewer said, “that it is not going to be a Pac-Man that just goes out and gobbles up properties. It will only be upon request, and in collaboration.”
From single- and multi-family housing development to industrial and commercial rebirth, the land bank could create design opportunities for underserved areas.
“You have an opportunity now where architects can come in and suggest better designs, enhanced facilities for their communities,” Brewer said. “You can promote better designs not only for open spaces, but also for better kinds of housing.”