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Cook County Land Bank must serve neighborhoods, not City Hall insiders

Friday, November 08, 2019
Chicago Sun-Times
by Editorial Board

At first glance, a deal cut by the Cook County Land Bank in 2017 to acquire a vacant, tax-delinquent property in Pullman looked routine.

The Land Bank would acquire the property at 103rd Street and Corliss Avenue, clear the unpaid taxes, then work with a developer to rehab the building.

But this particular deal involved a top aide to a veteran South Side alderman, and it smells today like day-old fish, as recently reported by the Sun-Times’ Lauren FitzPatrick and Tim Novak. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has requested a review to restore “public trust” in the Land Bank. She’s looking for recommendations to improve its operations and effectiveness — and to filter out any insider finagling.

That’s a fair approach. The Land Bank is a legitimate tool of urban renewal in a city and county that have too few. One fishy deal is no reason to eliminate the program.

In 2017, Chester Wilson Jr., chief of staff to Ald. Carrie Austin, turned over to the Land Bank a building he owned at 103rd Street and Corliss Avenue, which WBEZ revealed when it profiled Wilson in September.

Wilson, who collects a six-figure salary, hadn’t paid property taxes on the building since 2008 and owed more than $200,000 in property taxes and interest, according to records reviewed by FitzPatrick and Novak.

Are you wondering how a city employee with that kind of income was allowed to walk away from nine years of back taxes?

So are we.

A local daycare operator, Lisa Livingston, then paid $40,000 for the building.

What Wilson and Livingston failed to mention — and which the Land Bank now admits it did not catch — is that they had a prior business relationship. Just months before, they resold a single-family home they had rehabbed.

Are you wondering whether Wilson and Livingston were planning to do the same here, once Wilson unloaded that $200,000 in back taxes and interest?

So are we.

Land Bank Executive Director Robert Rose said the business partnership — if it had been disclosed — would have invalidated the deal, FitzPatrick and Novak reported.

Rose also says that Wilson personally still owes the $200,000-plus for the decade of unpaid taxes on the property — even though the tax liens on the property were removed when Wilson turned it over to the Land Bank.

The lesson here is obvious: The Land Bank can’t rely on self-reported full disclosure. Officials have a duty to poke around. When somebody wants to take over a decrepit property that nobody else wants, it begs the question of why.

Rose, who has declined to cancel a loan made to Livingston though she missed a deadline for completing the rehab work, insists this deal was “an absolute aberration.”

A independent review, we hope, will bear him out.

The Land Bank is about giving a boost to neighborhoods in need, not to City Hall insiders who do just fine.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.



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