In 2010, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer noticed something out of the ordinary—calls were coming in more frequently about constituents challenged with losing their homes. Aware of the housing market collapse and predator loan practices by banks, long-time home owners were seeking assistance from their public officials.
“People were calling me, they’re getting letters from the bank. People were worried if they had to move out that day—a lot of uncertainty. To be honest, the banks didn’t really know what to do. Half way through the foreclosure process, they realized they didn’t want all of these houses back, so what are we doing there? But, the compound had already started putting people out of their homes,” she remembers.
Growing up on the South Side in the Beverly community, Gainer began her career as a community organizer before entering into government. In order to equip people with resources to hopefully save their homes, she did a legal aid clinic in order for homeowners to know their rights. Working with Alderman Pat Dowell, a vacant lot ordinance was passed which forced banks who issued the mortgage to upkeep and secure the vacant property once the person walked away.
“In Cook County for the decades we used to have a minimum of 15,000 foreclosures per year. In 2009 to 2011, there was 45,000-55,000 during that time with the same number of judges… so if you had a foreclosure on a house, you used to be able to circulate it through the system and someone could buy it. Now it took at least 150 days to get a house out of foreclosure. So, it created this man-made barrier for regular people to buy houses, rehab and resale,” she explains. “We all know when a house sits vacant for a year, it gets stripped or it falls apart because it’s sitting in the winter.”
One day, both Gainer and Ald. Harris drove throughout the Chatham community looking at the houses. “She was taking me to all these homes that had become vacant. I literally remembered where we were. If there are vacant houses sitting in Chatham, then we are doomed. This is a solid neighborhood,” she thought.
Trying to find some kind of solution to a growing problem, she read about a land bank program in Flint, Mich. She recalls the neighborhoods were desirable and attractive where houses were being purchased through the land bank, so she reached out to the person who created the program. Taking money out of her county budget, Gainer hired him as a consultant to work on a similar program for Cook County.
Launching the Cook County Land Bank Authority (CCLBA) in 2013, it was two years in the works to identify vacant residential and commercial properties along with vacant lots that have carried back taxes and liens for years. The CCLBA acquires the properties, having the ability to wipe out taxes in order to sell them at below-market rates to qualified community-based developers who in turn rehab the homes and sometimes move-in.
Under the Homebuyer Direct Program roll-out in August 2017, properties in communities that have seen a considerable drop in residency such as Englewood, Auburn Gresham, East Chicago, Chicago Heights and other parts of Cook County offer consumers an opportunity to purchase and rehab these homes. Gainer says it’s simple.
“There’s a lot of people who can redevelop a house especially a single-family home. It’s not that complicated. There’s a lot fewer of those people that can go to court and hire a lawyer and put out money for all of that time before they can make any of that back. While all the talk from city hall or from the county building, ‘we want everyone to develop’. It was impossible for the average person.”
Rob Rose, CCLAB Executive Director, says it’s a program that provides an opportunity for home buyers to become developers. “Our job is to be able to facilitate. Our job isn’t to go into any one neighborhood to tell them what to do. Nor is our job to hand out checks. What we do is remove the legal barriers but more importantly, we give access. If you think about programs like this in the past, it always boils down to if we’re going to do RFQ (Request for Quotation) or qualify the smaller group to take advantage of these programs,” he says. “Black people for the most part were left out or that one Black person will get all of the business on the South Side and so you inadvertently pick your winners and losers.”
The CCLAB works independently from the Cook County Board earning revenue from the property sales and reinvesting into the budget to provide an infrastructure to provide additional resources for first-time home buyers and developers. In 2017, the program has generated nearly $18 million in earned program income, 20 percent over in 2016. Since the program began, 400 homes have been purchased and rehabbed.
Gainer says, “These neighborhoods are their own little ecosystems, let one of them fall and it weakens the whole infrastructure. For me was it was recognizing from the beginning, there’s a ton of people. There’s a ton of people who want to live those communities. We have just gotten in their way and we have to get rid of the nonsense.”
Going against the naysayers, Rose is proud of the accomplishments of the CCLBA as they enter into 2018 with a goal to acquire 600 properties.
“As the Land Bank was getting started, we were told these neighborhoods weren’t ready for redevelopment. Don’t be shocked or surprised if you have to rent out or maybe the Land Bank can rent them? It was this common theme of ‘sure the house can be rehabbed but who will actually buy them? Who wants to live there?’ What we’ve seen is that there are plenty of people who want to live there,” he said. “They are looking for quality rehabs, they’re looking for the barriers to be removed. If you can wipe away the back taxes, the code violations and address them in the rehab; the old mortgages and liens. You take all of that away and say, ‘here’s a house, can you make this work?’ It will open up all types of possibilities.”