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From abandoned properties to dream homes: Buying a house through Cook County’s land bank

The Cook County Land Bank Authority makes long-time vacant properties accessible for individual homebuyers, too

When Jillian Hardy was 55 years old, she faced an unimaginable situation: An eviction from her home in Lansing, Illinois where she had lived for the past 18 years.

“My biggest fear was losing my house and having to start all over again—that’s really unheard of at my age. I thought I lost everything,” Hardy said.

For a while after her father died in 2017, Hardy was depressed. She took time off work, left bills unpaid, and eventually that led to the loss of her very first home. When Hardy realized how close she was to being homeless, she quickly started looking for another place to live.

She found a house for sale with her realtor in Richton Park—it was part of the Cook County Land Bank Authority’s Homebuyer Direct Program.

The Cook County Land Bank Authority (CCLBA) takes abandoned homes and makes them easier to buy. There are thousands of vacant properties throughout Chicago that have fallen into disrepair, been boarded up, and left alone for years. That can mean back taxes or cloud on a title, which the land bank wipes out for the next owner if they commit to fixing up the property.

“Working with the land bank is a call to action,” said Cook County Land Bank Authority executive director Rob Rose. “Our work is to bring to market long-term vacant housing that’s been invisible and make it available, accessible, and affordable.”

The land bank was started in 2013 to address the communities across the Chicago area hit by the mortgage crisis—places that were seeing lots of abandoned properties. The organization is primarily known for acquiring vacant homes and selling them at below-market prices to community-based developers. But, residents can also apply to bid on land bank properties.

Hardy did just that for the four-bedroom, three-bathroom house in suburban Richton Park. The home was valued at $155,000 but, after getting approved for a mortgage, she was able to purchase it for $130,000. The land bank doesn’t require a down payment but does ask for a $1,000 fee which is applied as a credit at closing. In total, Hardy put $60,000 into the rehab which took about two and a half years.

During that time, she was living in a hotel and commuting a few hours each day to her job as the manager of a post office in Indiana. That was the biggest challenge, more so than losing her first house or planning her first-ever rehab, she said. But now? She has her dream home.

“I love my house. This is the house that was meant for me and my son to be in. I love the neighborhood. I pull up in my driveway whistling, I work crazy hours, and I’m not afraid,” she said. “I thank God everyday.”

Currently, the land bank has about 200 residential properties in its inventory and more are added every week. Since the Homebuyer Direct program started in 2017, about 150 homes have been sold and rehabbed. Local developers have been able to purchase properties from the land bank since 2013, and last November the organization celebrated its 500th rehab.

When the land bank looks at an applicant’s proposal, whether it’s from a developer or individual homebuyer, the organization isn’t looking for the highest bidder. While there are multiple offers on a property sometimes, what really helps the land bank make a decision is someone who has a thoughtful application.

“We’re looking for proposals that are specific—what issues does the house have and how are you going to address them? What is it going to cost? Do you have pictures or talk about what furniture you’ll bring in?” Rose said.

One applicant, Rose remembers, wrote a deeply compelling letter about how the home was in the neighborhood he grew up in and what it would mean for him to come back.

“Those are the things that help us make a decision and get out of the mentality of money. We’re thinking about best fit and the sustainability of the neighborhood,” he said.

Similarly, Michael and Alissa Bolz were excited about improving their neighborhood, too. They are long-time residents of Lansing, and lived next to a vacant house which the couple ended up purchasing through the land bank. Originally, it belonged to Michael’s grandfather in the 1950s but for the last few years had remained empty.

They paid the list price, which was just $4,000. As you might have guessed, the house was in complete disrepair.

“After we bought it, I said, what did we get ourselves into? The house was disgusting and beyond repair. But the best advice we got was to just start on one floor and work your way up.”

Using about $100,000 in rehab loans, the couple worked with a family-owned local contractor that allowed Michael to really be part of the process. He was excited to spend money locally and create more value in a neighborhood that had been part of his whole life.

This is the land bank’s mission—to create more value in neighborhoods. That means affordable housing, starter homes, and dream homes. “There are still lots of challenges to finding homes in areas where you want to live,” said Rose, “but the land bank is working on increasing those options.”

Chicago is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, like most other major cities. It’s challenging when most solutions appear to be dependent on developers building more affordable housing units. The land bank’s program is encouraging—it can make the process of homebuying and rehabbing empowering and affordable for individuals.