Chicago Tribune Editorial Board | December 23rd, 2016
Outsiders like to define Chicago with convenient, obvious imagery. Obama and Capone. The Cubs and Ditka. The Daleys and the Blues Brothers. We know, however, what the genome of our city is. Belmont Cragin and Bronzeville. Avondale and Avalon Park. Roscoe Village and Roseland. The patchwork of bungalows, graystones and two-flats, its schools and corner grocery stores, gives the city its defining contours.
So, to fix a Chicago that’s deteriorating in some places and emptying out in others, you’ve got to fix its neighborhoods. Block by block, house by house. That’s how you seed real change.
Chicago.TribuneThere’s a dizzying array of public and philanthropic initiatives aimed at remedying what ails our neighborhoods. One of them has been steadily gaining traction. We’re here to wish it an increasingly prosperous 2017.
Three years ago, the Cook County Land Bank Authority launched as a way to turn back blight created by foreclosures. The Great Recession hit everyone hard, but it pummeled neighborhoods on the South and West sides, where legions of homes were boarded due to foreclosure. The land bank has been buying up those houses and selling them to local developers, who then revamp the homes and get them back on the market — and back on property tax rolls.
The focus on foreclosed homes is smart. A street dotted with boarded-up homes is a cancer on the march. People don’t move into neighborhoods with blight, they move out of them. The list of South Side neighborhoods with dwindling populations is long, according to recent census data: Auburn Gresham’s population dropped 13 percent from 2011 to 2015; Roseland’s population dropped nearly 11 percent; Chatham, a 10 percent drop; Englewood, 21 percent.
There’s a logic to the land bank’s methodology. First, the managers sell only to local developers, not to larger, outside firms with no stake in South and West side neighborhoods. They vet the developers before doing business with them, ensuring that their rehab work has been sound. Another crucial element in the land bank’s game plan: the managers try to eliminate red tape — back taxes, liens, unpaid city fines or utility bills — that could slow the developer’s acquisition of the property.
The land bank got off the ground with a $4.5 million grant, part of Illinois’ $1 billion share of the federal government’s $25 billion settlement with five of the nation’s biggest mortgage lenders. Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, the driving force behind the land bank’s creation, boasts there’s not a single tax dollar in the land bank authority’s coffers. The money generated by selling the properties to developers is reinvested in the land bank. Gainer says the authority’s reliance on grant funding has gone from 94 percent in 2013 to just 12 percent this year. Self-sustainability is around the corner.
When it comes to saving neighborhoods, Gainer sees the land bank as “the cavalry. There’s no outside savior coming.” If that’s the case, the land bank needs to ratchet up its inventory. Since its inception, the land bank has been focusing on 13 West and South side neighborhoods and 13 western and southern Cook suburbs. So far, it has acquired 400 homes, selling 300 of them to developers. Across Cook County, there are roughly 20,000 vacant structures. Gainer’s goal for 2017: acquire 1,000 homes.
We’d like to see Gainer’s land bankers take on even more. The current roster of neighborhoods doesn’t include Roseland and Englewood, blighted, violence-wracked communities with falling populations. Gainer says in order for the land bank strategy to work, there has to be enough of a market in a neighborhood, enough momentum, to draw developer and homeowner interest. We’d like to see the land bank try its hand at seeding renewal in more challenging swatches of the city. Focus on one street in Englewood, turn it around, and developers may view that as the spark they need to rehab there — and the next street over.
On the South Side, a house in the 1100 block of West 101st Street in Washington Heights is an example of what the land bank can yield. Foreclosed in 2015, the house once had a hole in its roof and water damage that wrecked its walls, rugs and basement. Jason and Esther Williams, Bronzeville developers, bought it from the land bank for $16,000. They put more than $87,000 into an overhaul — new walls, new plumbing and electrical, central air and tuck pointing. It’s on the market now for $149,000.
“A house like this would be more than double the price on the North Side,” Jason Williams says. “It’s time to bring those values up here, because that’s what changes the landscape of a neighborhood. It makes people have pride in home ownership. That’s what the South Side is missing.”