Elaine Lee was facing an extremely difficult time in 2007.
Her husband had recently died. Her arthritis was getting worse. And then she lost her job. Like many homeowners in that year leading up to the Great Recession, she started falling behind on her mortgage.
“I was forced to sell or lose everything,” Lee said.
With the proceeds, “I was able to live on my own for a little more than a year.” But after that, money eventually dried up; she lived with her daughter or her sister for nearly a decade.
Then, in 2017, she received a call about a raffle that was underway; the winner would get the keys and deed to a newly renovated home. Naturally skeptical about “free” things, she assumed there was some sort of catch.
“I honestly thought this home giveaway wasn’t real because a lot of time people offer things up for free, and you just get a bunch of junk afterwards,” Lee said. “My daughter insisted it was real, and on the last day of registration I agreed to let her sign me up.”
Good thing, too.
The 68-year-old great-grandmother won the Cook County Land Bank Authority’s first Home Giveaway” that year, which she called a divine “blessing.”
This year, over 14,000 people have entered to win the Land Bank’s third annual giveaway.
That’s far more than the 3,700 who entered last year or the 2,800 in 2017, the year Lee won.
“We are committed to helping people achieve affordable homeownership and enhancing their financial literacy, and that’s why we’re proud to sponsor the Land Bank’s home giveaway,” Nicole Johnson-Scales, a Fifth Third vice president and head of community development, said in a statement.
The Land Bank was formed in 2013 by the Cook County Board of Commissioners to address communities hit hard by the mortgage crisis. It promotes the “redevelopment and reuse of vacant, abandoned, foreclosed or tax-delinquent properties.”
The annual giveaway also raises awareness of the Land Bank’s Homebuyer Direct Program, which allows people to buy vacant land or abandoned homes at below-market rates to rehab them.
Rob Rose, executive director of the Land Bank, said many homes were lost during the foreclosure crisis and there wasn’t anything in place to address those issues early on. The homebuyer direct program does just that, he said.
“What we wanted to do at the Land Bank was to stabilize the housing stock,” Rose said. “As families started to recover and get stable jobs, we wanted to be able to provide them with a way to get into the housing market, earn home equity quickly while also stabilizing communities by getting families into homes that were often seen as eye sores.”
Rose said the annual giveaway shows how abandoned homes can be rescued.
“It feels good to be able to stand on my own two feet now and have a place where my grandkids and great-grandkids can visit me or stay the night,” Lee said. “I am able to enjoy and watch them grow up.”