When, earlier this month, the Cook County Land Bank Authority identified 13 Chicago neighborhoods and 13 surrounding suburbs in which to aggressively purchase vacant single-family and multifamily properties — Austin was on the list.
The selected areas all have a concentrated supply of what the Woodstock Institute — a Chicago-based research and financial advocacy organization — calls “zombie properties.” Those are properties in which a foreclosure case “has been filed but not resolved for more than three years.”
“Because neither the borrower nor the servicer has clear control of the property, neither has a strong incentive to assume responsibility for the property,” the report notes. “Zombie properties, therefore, are likely to be poorly maintained or blighted, which threatens the stability of surrounding communities.”
In its 2014 report, the Woodstock Institute reported nearly 6,000 zombie properties in Chicago. Most of those homes, the report notes, are “disproportionately concentrated in lower-income communities” and “are more likely to occur in racially homogenous communities.” More than 250 of those properties, or about 12 out of every 1,000 mortgageable properties, were in Austin.
The land bank will work to revitalize those “zombie properties” and prevent other vacant properties from deteriorating into zombies by purchasing the properties, establishing site control and holding them for potential developers.
“What we do is come in … and write off those back taxes and work with [municipalities] around those code violations, so when we convey the property to a developer, at a minimum, what he knows is [he’s] got a tax-free, lien-free property that has been secured, cleaned out and maintained,” said Rob Rose, the land bank’s new executive director, during a recent informational meeting on the bank in suburban Maywood. Rose has also presented in Austin before the West Side NAACP.
“What the developer has to worry about now is just the cost of bringing [the property] back on line,” he said. “He doesn’t have those other unknowns that he’d have if he was just trying to do it by himself.”
Rose has noted that the 13 neighborhoods that the land bank has chosen to target not only have a concentrated supply of distressed properties, but also the potential to attract a sufficient supply of interested developers and end-users. The neighborhoods that were excluded, such as Englewood, North and South Lawndale and West Ridge, wouldn’t receive special attention because “there is too much to overcome,” Rose told the Tribune this month.
Rose is cautious and perhaps necessarily so (the land bank is only funded to the tune of $4.8 million); but his community-wide approach is nonetheless much more ambitious and less discriminating than that of his predecessor, Brian White.
Whereas White’s decision to buy and hold hinged on the future marketability of individual properties, Rose is betting on whole communities. It’s a process that requires a much broader array of stakeholder conversations — not just those among business, real estate and government professionals.
In Austin, the land bank is in talks with the West Side NAACP to craft a community benefits agreement. The agreement, “at its core,” establishes the aims and goals the community envisions for the development process, Rose said.
“It can be very specific, in terms of the number of jobs and businesses or it can be more general. I prefer to have it more general in scope, only because these opportunities are very dynamic and its very hard to nail down hard set numbers on this. But the spirit of it is what you want to agree to. We want to have community participation and make sure that the needs of local businesses are addressed in that benefit agreement,” he said.
The difficulty in this approach, Rose noted, is how precisely that community-wide consensus comes about. And a lot will be riding on the outcome. Rose said that what the land bank is trying to do in Austin “is going to serve as a model of how we’re going to engage other communities in the county.”
“I want to see how well the NAACP can pull together other members of the Austin community,” he said. “I want to make sure that we don’t have one group speaking on behalf of Austin and Austin is like, ‘That’s not what we’re saying.’ That tends to be how we get things wrong.”
Deborah Williams, a longtime NAACP member and the organization’s former third-vice president, said the group is currently working on forging a coalition of 17 different agencies that will have a stake in the agreement.
“We want to be at the forefront of any investors coming into our area,” she said. “We want to make sure the homeowners and people living in this community have [priority] on land and foreclosed properties, so we can keep our people living in our community.”