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Editorial: Watch out, Cook County land bank. The public could foreclose — on you.

Thursday, November 07, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

Worthy civic endeavors can become dead civic endeavors if no one trusts them. Which brings us to the tale of 10300-02 S. Corliss Ave.

At that Far South Side address is a two-story, brown brick building once owned by Chester Wilson Jr., a top aide for embattled Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th. Owned by Wilson for more than 10 years, the building was a mess, the Chicago Sun-Times explains. Fire had ravaged it. A raft of building code violations had piled up, as had more than $200,000 in property taxes and interest that Wilson owed on the structure.

Enter the Cook County Land Bank Authority, an agency created in 2013 to revive struggling South and West Side neighborhoods. The authority acquires foreclosed, vacant or abandoned homes and other buildings. Then it sells them to local developers, who fix up the properties and get them occupied and back on the tax rolls.

Wilson is chief of staff for Austin, whose office was raided by FBI agents last summer for reasons not yet clear. In 2017, he made a deal with the land bank, the Sun-Times reports, and donated the building to the agency. When the land bank obtains property, debt that could slow down a developer’s acquisition of the structure — such as back taxes, liens and unpaid city fines or utility bills — gets wiped out. So, the Corliss property’s due bill for unpaid property taxes disappeared.

As part of the deal, the building was turned over to Lisa Livingston, a day care operator. Neither Wilson nor Livingston disclosed to the land bank that they had been business partners. The agency says they should have disclosed that connection. A cynic might ask if the whole exercise was more about canceling the tax bill than about reviving the property.

The deal stinks, and it has prompted Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to call for an independent review of the land bank. Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, the agency’s chairwoman and the driving force behind its formation, joined Preckwinkle in calling for the probe.

There’s a lot riding on what that review yields, starting with the agency’s future. Paint that future bleak if taxpayers cannot trust the land bank, no matter how many distressed homes and buildings it has turned around. Especially in an era when the list of politicians and public officials tangled in corruption investigations grows longer with each passing month, the credibility of government operations matters.

That’s all the more important for an agency tasked with revitalizing swaths of downtrodden Chicago. The land bank’s mission is laudable: Reverse blight created by the waves of foreclosures pummeling the South and West sides during the Great Recession. Drive through Englewood or Roseland and you’ll see streets dotted with boarded-up homes. Without intervention, blighted neighborhoods all face the same fate: more businesses leaving, more jobs leaving, more people leaving.

The land bank says that, since its inception up until December 2018, it has generated 376 property rehabs. The land bank has done good work, and we’ve credited its staff for that.

But a bungle like approving the Corliss Avenue deal can cause public support to flag. The deal never should have happened. Not only should the county probe what happened in that case, it should conduct a deeper dive into the agency to see if any other too-cozy deals have escaped scrutiny. And it should set in place reforms that ensure public trust in the land bank doesn’t get undermined again.

Without that trust, the land bank risks putting itself on a path toward its own foreclosure.

Editorials reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board, as determined by the members of the board, the editorial page editor and the publisher.

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