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County edges closer to buying up vacant, foreclosed properties

Updated: January 21, 2013 1:17PM

What is being dubbed the nation’s largest landbank — an independent agency set up to acquire vacant land and foreclosed homes and commercial property in Chicago and the suburbs — moved one step closer to setting up shop Tuesday.

The Cook County Board’s finance committee signed off on creating the new landbank – in hopes of cleaning up neighborhoods and returning abandoned property to the tax roles. Because the finance committee’s membership is identical to the full County Board, the measure is expected to sail through final approval during Wednesday’s meeting.

County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, credited with taking the lead on the measure, said the cash-strapped county government wouldn’t have to fund the landbank. Instead, the roughly $15 million in seed money needed during the first three years of operation will likely come from local foundations and grants.

The money will be used for anything from hiring staff to purchasing property to rehabbing or demolishing it.

The goal is for the landbank to eventually be self-sustaining through the sale of property, renting others and other services landbanks provide.

By cleaning up one home or even a block blighted by the foreclosure crisis, it can bring relief to an entire neighborhood, Gainer said during a Tuesday committee meeting and again afterward.

“The impact of foreclosure isn’t just the person who loses a home – when a home goes vacant, the people next door or the people on the block even have to deal with property falling in to disrepair, the long grass,” Gainer told the Sun-Times. “And the ripple effect is even greater than that because you’re talking about businesses on the arterial streets, they’ve lost a customer when a home goes in to foreclosure.”

Last year, Gainer told the Sun-Times that landbanks can deal with properties the marketplace has rejected and the sluggish process of getting a property back in to play.

“You see people walking away from their homes, but there’s a long transition period to a new owner because of the backlog of foreclosures.” She said that in Cook County, it takes more than 500 days from the filing of a foreclosure to the awarding of a title.

She says successful landbanks are already up and running in other states, including Flint, Mich.’s Genesee County and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County.

Before the vote more than a dozen housing and community leaders in the Chicago threw their support behind the landbank, with several urging caution as the landbank – which will include a board of directors – takes shape and decisions about property is made.

Sharon Louis, with the South Shore Sustainability Collaborative, a neighborhood group on Chicago’s South Side, told commissioners she wants to be sure that decisions about vacant and abandoned property are part of a larger community discussion.

“The voices and input of those most impacted — the residents of our city and county must be included. Key decisions regarding land use and disposition of vacant foreclosed housing should take into account the needs of the people who live in and work in the affected communities,” she said.

The loss of affordable housing has been yet another casualty of the housing bubble and crisis.

“There’s has been a tremendous loss of rental housing stock that is affordable to low-income and working people. As we work to recover from this housing crisis we must preserve and restore housing affordability for the residents of our neighborhoods and work to avoid displacement of current residents.”

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