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Shruti Sharma/MEDILL

Jacqueline Cooper, an assistant teacher, said she feels unsafe because the vacant house next door attracts unemployed youth who engage in drug abuse and criminal activities.

Shruti Sharma/MEDILL

Gabrielle Kimble and Jacqueline Cooper, both live on the West Side of Chicago. They talk about the violence they witness in the neighborhood because of hundreds of foreclosed vacant properties.

Cook County partnership with local nonprofit could breathe new life into abandoned buildings on South and West Sides

by shruti sharma
Nov 14, 2012


Shruti Sharma/MEDILL

Gabrielle Kimble, has been a victim of gang violence. She has been robbed multiple times on the South Side where she spent considerable part of life.

Action Now, a Chicago-based nonprofit, is in talks with Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer’s office to join forces in support of her proposed Cook County Land Bank. The proposal to establish a Land Bank in Cook County is awaiting County Board approval.

The Land Bank would be able to accept donations of vacant foreclosed properties from banks and real estate companies, and would in turn collaborate with local real estate developers to renovate and rehabilitate these properties as affordable rental units.

Earlier this year, Action Now initiated the Rebuild Chicago Plan to combat the problem of vacant foreclosed buildings on the South and West Sides of Chicago. These are the areas worst hit by the crash of the housing market. In that plan, the nonprofit was pressing for establishment of the City of Chicago Land Bank. That plan has now been put on hold to channel all the nonprofit’s resources to supporting the Cook County Land Bank proposal.

“We are now focusing on getting Rebuild [Rebuild Chicago Plan] implemented in the Cook County Land Bank,” said Aileen Kelleher, director of communications at Action Now.

“It just makes sense that we work together and try to get something fast and effective for everyone,” Kelleher said.

Kelleher said that they wanted to make sure that there are standards in terms of what buildings the developers are allowed to work on and profit from.

“We want to make sure that they are providing jobs for people in the community and also creating affordable housing and not gentrifying the community …. There is a history of neglect in the low-income community of Chicago. We are one of the most segregated cities in the country,” she said.

Some other cities like Flint, Mich., and Cleveland, Ohio, have benefited from the creation of land banks. "These cities have been leaders in land banking so far," said David M. Abromowitz, senior fellow at Center for American Progress.

Kelleher said that until now no one has really pushed for creation of a similar land bank here in Chicago.

“I mean there has to be interest and people looking for proactive solutions to the housing crisis, which so far hasn’t really been addressed by our political figures …. We organize to ensure the political process will work for the community, and not just for downtown or people who make a lot of money in Chicago,” Kelleher said.

Kelleher said that the collaboration with Commissioner Gainer’s office has empowered their cause. “There is just more power behind working with the County, which already got a lot of support for the Land Bank.”

State Rep. Esther Golar (D-Chicago) said that establishing a Land Bank is going to be a time-consuming and difficult task, but supports the move. “People would feel that there is no hope, but this kind of initiative by Action Now puts a lot of excitement into the minds of the residents there, to know that there is an opportunity right now for things to improve.” She has supported Action Now in the past.

Golar also said that joining hands with the Cook County could provide the necessary momentum needed to step up the process of rebuilding Chicago.

Though creation of the Land Bank for the Cook County is one of the top priorities for the organizations involved, most sources agree that it might be a while before the proposal gains wider support from politicians, banks, real estate companies and community groups.

"There is a lot of pressure on local governments to solve the immediate problem in the lowest cost way and it may seem like the lowest cost way is to knock down the houses and avoid the crime and fire hazard problems,” Abromowitz said.

“In the long term, [demolition] doesn’t solve the bigger problem, which is creating affordable home ownership for the residents of the city. And that takes more planning and more resources, but that’s a better strategy in the long run," he said.