Quick Hit Steven Ross Johnson Tuesday January 22nd, 2013, 3:52pm

A Look At What The Cook County Land Bank Hopes To Accomplish

In an effort to reverse the problems that have cropped up in a number of communities over recent years as a result of the rise in vacant and abandoned properties, the Cook County Board voted last week to create a countywide land bank, a move Board Commissioner Bridget Gainer is hopeful will act as a first step towards economic revitalization for some of the area’s most blighted neighborhoods.

Last week, the Cook County Board voted unanimously in favor of forming the Cook County Land Bank Authority, which will be tasked with acquiring vacant and abandoned properties with the goal of making them taxable entities once they’re redeveloped.

Once up and running, the Authority will be geograpically the largest land bank in the country. Gainer said much of its focus, in the beginning, will be on helping communities that have been hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.

“One of the things that I worried about when we traveled all over the county talking to people in these communities was that some of these communities are going to hit a point of no return with the percentage of vacancies,” Gainer said. “We’ve got to jump in and stop that from happening.”

Similar to land banks located in other parts of the country, Gainer, who initially proposed the idea, said she envisions the function of the land bank to evolve over time, beginning with the acquisition of abandoned properties to try to “stop the bleeding” of declining home values and neighborhood blight.

The ultimate goal, Gainer said, will be for the Authority to become self-sustaining, with the ability to engage in redevelopment projects. “Our first task to get in there, to the places that are having the hardest time, and jump in,” she said.    

But first, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has the task of appointing the individuals that will serve on the Authority’s 13-member Board of Directors. According to the ordinance, the panel will consist of two suburban mayors or village presidents, one person selected by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to represent the City of Chicago, and representatives from banking, real estate, commercial development, affordable housing, city and suburban community groups, and community development institutions. Board members will serve for a term of three years and are required to be replaced after serving two consecutive terms.

Gainer said funding for the Authority is expected to come from grants, with a goal of reaching $1 million within the first six months, and to keep an annual budget between $5 million and $10 million.    

Last Wednesday’s vote was the culmination of more than a year of collaborative work by various interests on housing issues, efforts that resulted in near universal support for the plan from banks, realtors and affordable housing advocates, as well as city and suburban municipal leaders.

“There’s been so much money that has been thrown at the foreclosure issue over the last couple of years, and a lot of people will tell you, it hasn’t really been that impactful,” Gainer said. “If you don’t get everyone who is ultimately going to have to either live with the consequences, or help you find the money, or get the right people to the table, then it ends up not being effective. Having a collaborative process is a lot of work, but ultimately that’s what gives you something that is sustainable.”

The formation of a land bank comes at a time when the area has seen a steady increase in foreclosure filings while the nation as a whole has experienced a decline. According to data from the Woodstock Institute, there were more than 22,000 foreclosure filings within Cook County during the first six months of 2012, which is a three percent rise compared to the same period in 2011. Over the past four years, Cook County has had more than 90,000 foreclosure filings.

Woodstock spokeswoman Katie Buitrago said the land bank could play an important role in addressing an immediate need.

“We really need an interventionary tool like this,” Buitrago said. “I’m hoping that the land bank becomes self-sustaining, and shows a real impact on neighborhoods [so] that it’ll spread out of Cook County.”

According to University of Illinois at Chicago College of Urban Planning Dean Michael Pagano, a land bank is useful in that it can provide a municipality time to decide how best to utilize the land it has acquired while signaling a message to the community the local leaders intend to seriously address the problem of vacant and blighted land.

“It may not halt the foreclosures,” Pagano said. “But it may at least slow the decline in value by educating that there’s interest on the part of the county in keeping it for some productive use.”

In terms of potential drawbacks, Pagano said the ultimate success or failure of a land bank depends on the county’s long-term plan for the land.

“It’s a good opportunity for the county to strategically plan for the use of land owned by the county for the long-term interests of the county,” Pagano said. “I don’t know if those are drawbacks, but rather they are intervention points for the county, and if it works out then it worked out.”

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