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Not just another agency: How the Cook County Land Bank Authority is racing ahead

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle at the Feb. 7 MPC and ULI Chicago roundtable on the county's new land bank.

Housing, finance, real estate, policy, and economic development groups are buzzing about the passage of the Cook County Land Bank ordinance that effectually creates a countywide land bank. Whenever new strategies and policies initiate, valid questions arise, such as how will this benefit my neighborhood, what are the unique advantages of this approach, and what obstacles might we expect? To address many of these questions, the Metropolitan Planning Council and Urban Land Institute Chicago (ULI Chicago) co-hosted a roundtable on Thursday, Feb. 7, featuring Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, Teska Principal Scott Goldstein, and Thriving Communities Institute Director Jim Rokakis (watch the webcast here). The panel discussed the vision for the Cook County Land Bank Authority and fielded more than a dozen thoughtful questions from an engaged audience of more than 200 people, whose interest demonstrated how important this issue is for area residents, community leaders and the private sector.

Pres. Preckwinkle opened with a strong justification for why a countywide land bank is necessary to get properties back on our tax rolls and improve our communities. Hot off the presses, Pres. Preckwinkle announced that the Cook County Land Bank Board of Directors was officially welcomed to start leading the initiative and would be approved on Friday, Feb. 8. The Board will be deeply involved during the search for an Executive Director and as the land bank’s policies and procedures are developed. Preckwinkle and her fellow panelists stressed that the most important task at this time is hiring top-notch staff to lead this initiative. Read a wrap-up of the event on Pres. Preckwinkle's blog.

Scott Goldstein – who has extensive experience in neighborhood, downtown and retail planning and represented the development community – expressed his appreciation for how engaged the private sector has been in planning the land bank. As chair of ULI Chicago’s Public Policy Committee, Goldstein oversaw a two-day Technical Assistance Panel that obtained input from more than 100 experts, including the Center for Community Progress, on how to structure and create a Cook County Land Bank. Scott stressed that developers need predictability— something the land bank can deliver by stabilizing the market so that the private sector can succeed at acquiring and redeveloping blighted, vacant land.

Jim Rokakis, from Cuyahoga County, Ohio, serves as director of the Thriving Communities Institute as well as vice president of Western Reserve Land Conservancy. He is a national expert on distressed properties, foreclosure mitigation, and land banking. Rokakis described the Cuyahoga Land Bank, a model that the Cook County Land Bank is modeled after, and discussed how Cuyahoga’s land bank is not only focused on residential rehabilitation but also creative reuses of space, for example expanded side yards, green space, stormwater management, and more. According to Rokakis, a land bank’s greatest power is its ability to clear toxic titles and tax delinquencies. Given his experience, Rokakis stressed that the biggest challenge facing land banks is financing operations and demolitions; in fact, he likened the lack of funding for demolitions to having a car with no gas. That’s why the Thriving Communities Institute has been advocating for legislation to create Qualified Urban Demolition Bonds, which would provide states and land banks with 30-year tax credit bonds to finance strategic demolitions and stymie future waves of blight. MPC and other advocates will continue to support these legislative efforts that will give land banks the support they need to reach economies of scale.

Last but not least, Commissioner Bridget Gainer revealed the next steps for the Cook County Land Bank. Comm. Gainer, who has taken strong leadership to streamline the foreclosure process and create the land bank, has been named to the Cook County Land Bank Board of Directors. Comm. Gainer talked passionately about the families directly and indirectly affected by the foreclosure crisis—those left without homes, as well as those left behind, on half-empty blocks with declining home values and escalating crime. While Comm. Gainer worked to pass the Vacant Buildings Ordinance, she stressed that the County’s creation of a land bank stemmed from the acknowledgement that a more proactive, development-oriented solution was needed to remove obstacles like demolition, delinquent taxes, cloudy title, and other administrative burdens. She said the land bank fits this bill, as it combines Pres. Preckwinkle’s focus on community development with a redevelopment strategy. Comm. Gainer also stressed that the County needed to act quickly, rather than waiting for Springfield to pass legislation enabling a land bank. She wrapped up by highlighting the Cook County Land Bank’s strengths:

  1. A clarity of purpose—its sole mission is to address vacancy, abandonment and redevelopment;
  2. An independent, highly experienced Board of Directors;
  3. A focus on being market-driven and the capacity to leverage the private sector;
  4. The ability to apply for and receive funding from private, foundation and government sources with the end goal of becoming self-sustaining.

Moving forward, MPC is eager to see this initiative take life and will continue to advise on how to align the land bank with the private sector. MPC is working a variety of issues to address the changing housing market, including encouraging multi-town collaboration and helping investors and communities plan for the foreclosure crisis’ effect on the growing number of single-family rental homes. Please see the following reports for more information: Supporting and Sustaining Interjurisdictional Collaboration and Managing Single-Family Rental Housing.

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