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Cook County pushing redevelopment

Tuesday, March 22, 2011
by Amy Lee

A dilapidated home. A vacant strip mall. A long-shuttered factory.

Vacant, blighted properties that dot the Southland drain communities of sorely needed tax dollars and become a psychological, if not physical, hurdle to redevelopment. And as the housing industry struggles to recover from a massive, years-long slump, vacant and neglected properties continue to pop up in wealthy and poor towns alike.

That’s why Cook County has reinvigorated its No Cash Bid Program to help 13 municipalities — nearly all in south Cook County — to get tax delinquent properties redeveloped for new uses such as housing or retail.

“This is a way for the county to be supportive, to help municipalities get land without having to lay out cash resources,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Monday. “Most of the time, the properties are in areas with no economic development.”

Towns interested in taking over a private property that has been tax delinquent for at least two years can apply to assume the land, provided they have a redevelopment plan.

It works like this: back taxes, interest and penalties on the parcel are expunged, and the county turns the deed over to the municipality.

The process takes at least a year — and sometimes years — to complete, based in large part on the history of the parcel and the complexity of its financial problems.

The county provides staff and resources to navigate the myriad county departments involved with land sale and acquisition — including the assessor, clerk, state’s attorney office and others — and provide the deed to the land at no cost to the municipality.

The program speeds up the process for gaining a property deed, Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-Chicago) said. It also helps smaller towns, such as Robbins or Ford Heights, that don’t have staff to devote toward getting a tax-delinquent property back on tax rolls, she said.

“We work with them so that when they get the deed, they are ready to develop,” Sims said. “They’re ready to go.”

Local leaders in 2010 submitted 500 tax delinquent parcels to the program, and 99 were deemed eligible for redevelopment with the No Cash Bid Program, county officials said.

The town can move forward with making use of the land, whether for housing, business, or land-management uses, such as storm water management.

Municipalities incur costs, such as attorney’s fees, but county workers do a lot of the research and legwork needed to clear a parcel for redevelopment, said Stephanie Milito a county planner.

“It’s not free in that they do incur costs, but we do a lot of the work for them,” Milito said.

The program, in place since the early 1990s, has led to the redevelopment of thousands of sites in 68 Cook County municipalities and three townships, according to Preckwinkle. County officials did not have a figure on how much money in back taxes the county has forgiven through the program to date.

Selected in the most recent round of applicants include projects to build a new gas station/convenience store, single-family homes and a facility to train first responders.

The ongoing housing crisis and a lack of interested buyers led the county to step up its efforts to educate local residents on the No Cash Bid Program, according to county officials.

“In the past, when real estate was in demand, there was not as much of a problem,” said John Schneider, the county’s deputy director of economic development. “Now, it’s much worse and villages are looking for anything they can do to get these properties back on the tax rolls.”

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