Accelerating Change Series: Building resources to battle foreclosure - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Accelerating Change Series: Building resources to battle foreclosure

Flickr user Daniel X. O'Neil

The Cook County Land Bank will collect searchable data on foreclosed and vacant properties around the region.

For our 2013 Annual Luncheon blog series, we're discussing "Accelerating Change"—the theme of this year's Annual Luncheon. Experts from outside and inside MPC will bring their thoughts to the table on how technology is helping our cities meet the challenges and opportunities facing them today and tomorrow.

As a commissioner on the Cook County Board, one of my main priorities has been combating the devastating effects of the foreclosure crisis throughout Cook County. On Jan. 16, 2013, the Cook County Board of Commissioners created the Cook County Land Bank Authority—the largest land bank in the country and our region’s most comprehensive response to the challenge of returning the county’s estimated 200,000 parcels of vacant land and abandoned homes back into productive and sustainable community assets. A project of this scale requires a lot of human expertise; it also requires technology, in the form of a comprehensive, sophisticated, easily searchable online database that can track and sort the vast amount of data on vacant properties in Cook County.

The passage of the Cook County Land Bank Ordinance was the culmination of over three years of research and outreach to communities around the county and the country and, most importantly, the expert guidance of over 100 stakeholders. The Cook County Land Bank, created using only Cook County’s home-rule authority, was designed to address vacant and abandoned buildings regionally and go directly to the core problems communities are facing: vacant and abandoned properties and depreciating home values. Vested with powers such as the ability to clear title and eliminate back taxes, the Land Bank can operate quickly, flexibly and strategically to get communities on a growth-focused trajectory.

To achieve this, the Cook County Land Bank Authority will work to expand the definitions of ‘livable’ and ‘sustainable’ communities. In a time of flat population growth or even loss, creating a successful community may not mean replicating the housing density or population targets of earlier generations. Open spaces, intermediate uses for land or redeployment of Chicago’s famous grid structure may be the way forward to create neighborhoods in which people want to live. Cities are very good at managing increasing demands for housing, increasing density or growing commercial use, but we have yet to figure out a way to manage the decreasing demand for housing such that it does not equal community failure. Reduction in population density does not have to mean sacrificing the quality of life for neighborhoods that have nurtured generations of Chicago and Cook County families.

As Chairman of the Cook County Land Bank Authority, I was thrilled to partner with the Eric & Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Fellowship program to help us kick start what will be the backbone of the Cook County Land Bank’s mission—access to smart and timely data. The Fellowship provided invaluable analytical tools that will help us return thousands of vacant and abandoned properties back into productive and sustainable community assets. Aggregating the millions of pieces of data that are collected by the local governments in order to analyze Cook County’s real estate market and assemble critical property indicators—property sales, foreclosures, building inspections, zoning—will help us to create targeted reuse and redevelopment plans.

It is my intention that the Cook County Land Bank follow the lead of entities such as the Northeast Ohio Community and Neighborhood Data for Organizing (NEO CANDO); the cities of Philadelphia, Pa., and Providence, R. I.; and any regional databases that provide a single point of access to socio-economic data from government, foundations and nonprofit partners. Data could include anything from code violations to vacancies to school or even flood data.

After establishing collaborative partnerships, a Cook County Regional Database will be operated by a third party, and the land bank will be only one of many users and providers of information. The creation of our own regional database will allow users to track, sort and analyze data from hundreds of sources. Similarly to NEO CANDO, the Cook County Regional Database will update data weekly and be searchable, sortable and filterable in order to create a real-time accessible system with inputs from local governments, nonprofits and other partners. The regional database will allow users to access data for the entire region, or for specific neighborhoods or even parcels for mapping or project analysis. The goal of this database is to support entities such as the Cook County Land Bank Authority, local nonprofits and our suburban municipalities through the creation of a centralized, open-source web-based tool to analyze demographic, socioeconomic, health, housing and geographic data.

While end uses will be different based on the user, access to real-time market indicators will help both the land bank and participating local governments determine what their goals and priorities are for land re-use and redevelopment. The database will also allow local governments, nonprofits and neighborhood stakeholders the ability to monitor early warning signs of distress and abandonment so that they may address these problems earlier, before properties become even more troubled and in need of more serious intervention.

A Cook County Land Bank, while not a panacea, will give the County and our local government partners greater opportunity and ability to address the challenges of vacant property and land.

Commissioner Gainer joined the Cook County Board in 2009 and represents the 10th District, comprised of the North lakefront and Northwest side. Her focus on vacant housing arose from the assistance her office provided to constituents going through foreclosure. These efforts led to the development of court mediation in 2010, the passage of the County’s Vacant Building Ordinance in 2011, and most recently the creation of the Cook County Land Bank. As a member of the Land Bank Board of Directors, Commissioner Gainer will work to ensure the vision of the land bank becomes a successful reality.

For more information on the Cook County Land Bank please visit


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