Policy Director Julie Dworkin is a member of the Cook County Land Bank Board of Directors.
Story by Micah Maidenberg/Photos by John R. Boehm
Speaking to a group of South Side real estate executives recently, Brian White, the new executive director of the Cook County Land Bank Authority, tiptoed along a delicate line: His fledgling agency can help address the pernicious problem of abandoned homes—but it can’t help everybody.
Referencing an investor in over his head with a distressed property in west suburban Maywood, Mr. White told the crowd that “my mandate doesn’t call for me to bail out his bad business decision.” But he also highlighted the land bank’s willingness to piggyback on deals to stabilize neighborhoods and put vacant properties back to use.
“What I would say to you, without . . . overly stating it, is the land bank has the flexibility to do just about anything that could make sense within the context of this mission.”
These types of sessions about the land bank—a public agency meant to take title to empty, abandoned properties, clear them of liens and find another owner for them—take up a lot of Mr. White’s time. Six months into the job, he is trying to turn the land bank from a well-intentioned sketch on paper into a nimble organization that helps answer one of the city and county’s most vexing challenges.
“You’ve got to get buy-in,” says Russell Rydin, executive director of the South Suburban Land Bank Authority, a similar group that’s working with about a dozen municipalities on vacancy issues. “That’s the local government, but also the community. . . . When they see a land bank come in initially, they have these questions.”
Right now, the organization remains for the most part a blank slate upon which different groups and constituencies project their priorities. It won’t be simple to sort through all the claims.
At right: The Cook County Land Bank Authority plans to acquire this property in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood.
On Chicago’s Northwest Side, Diane Limas, president of the board of the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, says the group wants the land bank to acquire apartment buildings in foreclosure and preserve them as affordable housing. In Maywood, Mayor Edwenna Perkins is looking for an “organization that will come in and make these banks do their jobs” by maintaining foreclosed homes.
Chicago Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, hopes the agency can find new uses for empty homes in his South Side ward, which includes neighborhoods like Chatham. But he’s concerned about the group becoming a vehicle for firms that acquire and rent out single-family properties.
“I’m looking for more homeowners,” he says. “I’m not trying to slight anybody, but I’m not looking for an abundance of single-family homes rented out en masse.”
Into this maelstrom comes Mr. White. An Evanston native who lives with his family in Rogers Park, Mr. White, 44, began his career with the now-closed Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, a fair housing group, and later led the Lakeside Community Development Corp., which focused on a range of lending and housing issues, mainly on the North Side. He came to the land bank after spending about a year-and-a-half working for Charter One bank.
Mr. White says the land bank still is gearing up, adding staff and internal capacity and figuring out what it can and can’t do in markets across the county. One lesson that’s quickly emerged is that the agency won’t be all things to all people.
At right: An abandoned property in the Burnside neighborhood
“I oftentimes use the phrase, ‘It’s not ‘No,’ it’s ‘Not yet.’ It’s not that I’m saying no to you—it’s I’m saying we haven’t identified what the value is today” that the land bank could add, he says. “Let’s think this through and figure out where there is the value.”
The scale of the problem is so immense—there were nearly 55,000 abandoned homes across Cook County as of the first quarter, according to DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies—that it’s unlikely the land bank will have a noticeable impact anytime soon.
A loan servicer recently donated two South Side properties to the agency, and it is negotiating to acquire at least 14 more, half of them outside the city. Mr. White says the group probably has looked at around 500 acquisitions so far but is moving carefully to ensure it takes on properties for which it can ultimately find another use and owner.
“I’m not expecting a miracle to happen within the first five months,” Mr. White says. “But I think if you look at what we could accomplish within the first year—60, 70 properties—then you say on those blocks where the land bank is working, those blocks are starting to improve. And then it’s a ripple effect.”
Below: Brian White, executive director of the Cook County Land Bank Authority.