By Blake Sercye
One…two…three…four…When driving through the First District it seems like you can count more foreclosed properties on many blocks than inhabited ones. Unfortunately, vacant lots and abandoned buildings have become mainstays in communities throughout our county. According to the most recent census 199,778 housing units, about 9% of all units, in Cook County are vacant. A vacant property not only affects neighboring homes but also entire communities. A single vacant house equates to lost tax revenue that robs us of funding for our libraries and schools, as well as other public services such as police and fire. Vacant lots and abandoned buildings also make us feel unsafe in our own homes and decrease our property values.
I have firsthand experience of the deleterious impact that a vacant lot can have on neighboring homeowners and residents. I grew up in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood next to a vacant lot for most of my young life. I often played basketball on a small rim in my mother’s backyard and I dreaded the trip to retrieve my ball when it bounced over our fence. The lot was filled with litter and debris – to describe the lot politely – and to make matters worse the grass always seemed to be three feet high. Periodically, my family would clean the lot as much as we could, but it seemed like only days later the lot would be filthy again.
Many of us have struggled with vacant lots and abandoned properties for decades. Our struggle was only exacerbated by rising unemployment and the collapse of the housing market in 2008. During the last several years, the crisis has spread throughout the inner city and suburban Cook County. Although there appears to be some areas where housing prices are on the rise and houses are selling again, most communities are still stuck in the mire of the vacancy crisis.
So what is the solution?
The Cook County Land Bank offers an exciting opportunity for community redevelopment that can help solve our vacancy problem. Created early last year, the land bank is designed to acquire title, clear back taxes and liens, and rehabilitate property before putting the property back to use for public or private buyers. Rather than continue to use piecemeal options to combat the vacancy crisis, we must use comprehensive solutions like land banking which require both public and private reinvestment in our communities.
As candidate for First District Cook County Commissioner, I have been an advocate for using land bank resources to help put abandoned property in our community back to productive use. The temporary closing of Maywood Library is a clear example of why ensuring that properties in our community are in productive use is essential to maintaining the tax dollars necessary to support public services.
Additionally, since 2012, I have served as a gubernatorial appointee to the Illinois Medical District Commission, a body charged with developing and enhancing the largest urban healthcare, educational, research, and technology district in the nation. I am proud of the work that our staff and my fellow commissioners and I have done to find innovative ways to use and develop land in the Illinois Medical District. I look forward to using these experiences to help find ways to utilize land banking as a tool to revitalize the First District so that foreclosed buildings become affordable single-family housing and vacant lots develop into thriving new businesses.
Of course, solutions to big problems always take time to develop. Still, I know that if we work together we will soon be counting the new developments and business in the First District, not our vacancies. Together, we can move the First District and Cook County forward. VFP
Blake Sercye is an attorney in the litigation department of Jenner & Block, LLP in Chicago, where he practices complex commercial litigation and anti-corruption compliance. Mr. Sercye maintains a pro bono practice that includes prisoners’ rights and fair housing litigation, and he also chairs the Legal Redress Committee of the Chicago West Side Branch of the NAACP. He is currently a candidate for 1st District Cook County Commissioner.