Fort Maner’s West Side location at 2819 W. Harrison St. in Garfield Park. (Google maps)

The owners of a West Side clothing brand were thrilled to finally open a brick-and-mortar store in 2018 after five years in business.

But the brand has faced challenges since then: The entrepreneurs’ dreams were nearly crushed when their landlord’s unpaid property taxes almost forced them to close. In a last-minute twist, the brand ended up being able to buy the property and keep their business. Now, they’re looking forward to many more years on the West Side.

The flagship Fort Maner shop opened in 2018 at 2819 W. Harrison St., just two blocks from where cofounder Tyshaun Hunter was raised. Hunter and his business partner, Aiyana Kendall, poured themselves into rehabbing the formerly vacant building they were renting, installing a new floor, replacing the roof, getting a new furnace and fixing up the walls.

“It wasn’t easy. But I wanted to make it like home. I didn’t want to open up a store in a messed-up place,” Hunter said.

But after all that work, they almost lost the business altogether in 2019. Their landlord was three years behind on property taxes and a new owner was primed to take over the building, which meant Hunter and Kendall could have been evicted or seen their rent skyrocket.

“We offered to buy the property from the landlord since he was going to lose it. But he acted like nothing was wrong,” Kendall said. “We were frightened. We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

“I was furious,” Hunter said. “I finally got a business in the neighborhood where I live, helping people get jobs in the community. And in the blink of an eye, it was going to be taken from me.”

By coincidence, another effort to buy the building helped save Hunter and Kendall’s business.

Cook County records show property taxes on the building weren’t paid in 2019 or 2020, racking up $22,480.50 in taxes and interest. Taxes also are marked “delinquent” for 2018.

The Cook County Land Bank Authority, a government organization that seeks out vacant land to put it back into use, had begun the process of buying up the back taxes and acquiring the property at a 2017 scavenger sale.

A scavenger sale is the county’s last resort to collect taxes that haven’t been paid in at least three years. When a buyer purchases the taxes on a property, the original property owner has a redemption period to pay the back taxes. If they don’t pay, the entity buying up the taxes can get a tax deed from the courts, which makes them the new owner of the property.

“What normally happens, if we don’t buy it, then the next tax buyer will acquire the store and put [tenants] out,” said Elisha Sanders, an acquisition specialist for the Land Bank.

When Sanders purchased the taxes for the Land Bank at the scavenger sale in 2017, the property was vacant. A year into the process of acquiring the land, Sanders learned Hunter and Kendall had rented and overhauled the space.

“In our initial inspection, the property was vacant. Further down the line … it’s operating as a full store, fully rehabbed,” Sanders said.

It’s not uncommon for landowners who are behind on their property taxes to keep tenants “in the dark until the sheriff shows up” to evict them, Sanders said.

“You see a lot of local businesses in this situation. They don’t know until it’s too late,” she said.

The Cook County Land Bank Authority typically only buys “vacant and distressed” properties so they can be used by neighborhood organizations and residents for purposes that benefit the community. Since they had unwittingly acquired a building that was already in use, Sanders reached out to Kendall and Hunter to ask if they would want to buy the building themselves.

“That was just the best news ever. We told them, yeah, absolutely,” Kendall said.

The scavenger sale process is a long one, Sanders said. The original owner has 30 months to pay their back taxes before the property is turned over in a complex legal process. The Land Bank makes it easier for residents, organizations and businesses like Fort Maner to acquire a property “without all the red tape,” Sanders said.

Now, almost two years after Sanders reached out to the small business owners, Hunter and Kendall have finally closed on the property. Hunter said he takes tremendous pride in not only running a business in his own community, but also owning the land his business is built on.

Owning the property gives Fort Maner much more stability, and the owners won’t have to worry about rising rents or issues with a landlord. It also gives the entrepreneurs more opportunity to build out the store since they’ll be investing in their own building, rather than one that belongs to somebody else, Hunter said.

“I can do what I want. I can make my place bigger. I can hire more people from the community,” Hunter said. “It means the world to me.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.