In a unanimous vote last week, the Cook County Board of Commissioners approved an ordinance to create the Cook County Land Bank Authority, giving the government a way to renovate and revitalize the rising number of vacant properties across the county.
“The land bank will provide another tool to strategically bring vacant buildings into productive use in cities and towns throughout Cook County,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a press release last Wednesday.
The Cook County land bank will be the largest in the country and will serve as a quasi-agency within the government. It will be led by a 13-person panel of architects, community leaders and experts.
By taking control of dilapidated properties and flipping them, the community redevelopment process speeds up.
“I’ve been to every corner of Cook County, and I’ve seen first-hand how municipalities struggle to return vacant properties to their tax rolls,” said Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “This landmark ordinance will help the County combat the foreclosure crisis that has decimated communities.”
The Urban Land Institute, one of Chicago’s oldest district councils, praised the ordinance, reminding people that over 200,000 units are currently vacant and an estimated 85,014 foreclosure cases are currently pending in courts in Cook County. They say the land bank will “be a strategic, collaborative, proactive catalyst for redevelopment based on local priorities and return properties to productive use,” said a spokesperson from the ULI.
While there are very few opposing the measure within Chicago, the ordinance is not without its opponents elsewhere. Many states have tried land banks and had success with them, quickly promoting economic growth directly through the housing market.
Even so, Groups in Kansas, Missouri and Michigan have fought to end land banks in their states, claiming they have become far too powerful and rife with corruption while wasting valuable tax dollars.
Kacie Galbraith and the Show-Me Institute, a public policy research organization, have done extensive research on the land banks in St. Louis and Kansas City and have found that they rarely end up becoming an arm of the community. They often reject offers from private homeowners “in favor of potential future large-scale developments, many of which never materialize,” Galbraith said.
“The structure of the St. Louis LRA allows abuse of power and extreme subjectivity when deciding what to do with a property,” Galbraith said. “What’s to stop the LRA from saying no to a potential buyer, and yes to a council member’s cousin?” she said. “Their actions make land banks a tool of the powerful and political class – not a tool to help struggling communities.”
Studies have shown that more than half of the offers for propertiesy have been rejected by the St. Louis land bank and they often outbid private buyers at housing auctions. This seemingly goes against the stated mission of returning the land to private, productive ownership.
The Cook County land bank will start out with funding from outside groups and hopefully become self-sufficient through property sales within the next couple of years.
“A Cook County Land Bank is not a silver bullet,” said Bridget Gainer, 10th District Cook County Commissioner who spearheaded the ordinance. “But it will give the County the ability to execute a comprehensive plan to address not just the vacant homes, but the communities that surround them.”