Dajuan Robinson jokes that he came to the field of construction to “make some money and stay out of trouble.”
The 32-year-old Chatham native learned his building skills at the knee of his great grandfather, who used to make anything that needed to be fixed around their house on 78th Street and Indiana Avenue. Fast-forward to today and Robinson is a licensed general contractor with a five-year-old business, DNA Construction. He’s looking to make $80,000 to $90,000 profit on his latest rehabbed Greater Grand Crossing home — a property that is the 500th rehab for the Cook County Land Bank Authority (CCLBA).
Robinson is one of many small business owners, developers and individuals working with the CCLBA, a nonprofit founded by the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2013 to help residents and communities hit hard by the 2008 mortgage crisis. The CCLBA acquires properties that sit vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent for years and sells them at below-market rates to qualified community-based developers who then rehab the homes and sell them to homeowners. The first home was completed in 2015 and along the way, the Land Bank has helped entrepreneurs like Robinson grow their businesses as well as turn around familiar neighborhoods, block by block, one property at a time.
“The way I see it, we had 500 blocks that used to have a vacant house sitting there and now they don’t,” said Cook County Commissioner and CCLBA founder Bridget Gainer. “What we really want people to do is rehab vacant housing and get these homes back in active use and on the tax rolls. But what was happening was, in order to get to rehab a house, you had to go through this gauntlet of a year in court and hiring a lawyer because you had fines and fees from the city that had accumulated. We have the ability to remove barriers like back taxes, code violations, old mortgages — things that encumber title. Once you take away these barriers, all these people walk through the door.”
Those people are 400-plus small developers, the majority of whom are black and Latino, said Gainer, current CCLBA chairwoman. They are people like former nurse turned “rapping” real estate broker Trinette Lindsey of Lansing, who renovated a 2,200 square foot property in South Chicago and secured a contract with a first-time homebuyer within 15 days of listing it. She’s now looking for CCLBA properties in Morgan Park, Washington Heights and Englewood. Or Bridgette Washington, a medical device salesperson who renovated a four-bedroom, one bath bungalow at 6638 S. Artesian Ave. into a four bedroom, 2.5 bath home with new masonry work, plumbing, electrical and HVAC. She said she tried her hand at rehabbing to use her creativity to add to her retirement.
To work with the CCLBA in redeveloping homes, one has to have a plan for a property, says executive director Rob Rose. The rehab has to begin within six months of buying it and typically must be completed within a year (although extensions are available). Developers also have to show the nonprofit they have the ability to execute their plan, finances to build it, and explain how they’re going to attract buyers and at what price range, Rose said. Properties don’t go to the highest bidder. Instead, properties are awarded through evaluation, in which acquisition specialists look at a developer’s plan, prior work if there is any, and references. You don’t have to be a licensed or certified professional to rehab a property.
“We try to find as many ways to make it friendly for you to work with us; you don’t have to be ‘perfect’ in order to do business with the Land Bank and that’s part of what we take pride in,” Rose said. “We have this shingle out that says: If you’re new and starting out, but you have plans and an ability to execute, we want to work with you. Everyone has a level playing field in terms of the price and what we’re looking at is the strength of the proposal.”
So far, the organization has acquired 1,406 properties (including single family homes, multifamily homes, vacant lots and commercial buildings); sold 879 properties to developers and saved 147 homes from demolition through Sept. 30. About $7.5 million has been returned to the Cook County tax rolls and over $66 million in community wealth (defined as the difference in CCLBA’s acquisition price and what the community developer sold the property for) has been generated throughout Cook County, according to 2018-2019 CCLBA data.
“When you work with the Land Bank, it’s a call to action. If you buy a house to rehab it, we don’t want you to sit on it for a year without doing anything to it, nor do we want you to play a game of hot potato, where you buy from the Land Bank and then resell it to another group and do nothing with it. That type of speculation is what kills neighborhoods, so we hold you accountable to get the work done,” Rose said.
Robinson, a Calumet Heights resident, just completed his second CCLBA property at 7409 S. Calumet Ave. Purchased for $14,000, he spent approximately $150,000 to renovate and expand a three bedroom, 1.5 bath property that sat vacant for more than four years into a four bedroom, 3.5 baths residence that he’s looking to sell for $275,000. Robinson has focused his rehab efforts in his South Side community.
“I know the history of Chatham; it’s where I’m from. It’s the mecca of the South Side as far as I’m concerned. It just needs a little bit of work and that’s why I’m here,” he said.
Gainer said CCLBA developers are often people who were never able to do business with the city or able to get into the flipping market because barriers were so high. The Land Bank levels the playing field for small developers like Lindsey and Washington by providing them an opportunity to get in the rehab game when competing with cash-ready, bigger developers. Many rehab in Cook County areas that have seen disinvestment for years.
“There’s not a lot of properties that come on the MLS and when there are, investors like me get outbid because I’m not using cash. So the properties that are great for rehabbing and developing, they go very quickly and they’re typically going 10 or 20 grand over the list price,” Lindsey said.
When the co-owners of “mom and pop” developer Ultimate Real Estate Group LLC/Ultimate Home Chicago decided to expand their operations in 2014, they thought the Land Bank’s premise was a good one. As a realtor and Ultimate’s co-owner, Esther Williams said she knows the trickle down effect that abandoned homes and board ups have in discouraging other developers from coming in and doing improvements. But with the CCLBA, Williams and her firm are making an impact with rehabs in neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham, Chatham, Gage Park, South Shore, Bronzeville and Woodlawn.
“It feels good to go into neighborhoods that I grew up in or may have known a family or had a friend who lived there and say: ‘I changed the way this block looks.’ A board-up or a home that was set for demolition, now has a family there creating memories,” Williams said. “Everyone eats and gets to benefit from this model.”
“I think there’s a certain amount of optimism out there with guys like Dajuan,” Rose said. “Being able to take long-term vacant houses and bring them back online and the power that that has? It’s immeasurable because when we think about the effects, it has a multiplier effect across the region.”