The Daily Line
Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas stepped up her back-and-forth with the county Land Bank Authority with a special delivery on Friday to every elected county commissioner and to Eleanor Gorski, the land bank’s executive director.
Pappas had a plush white pillow delivered to all 18 offices — plus the office of county board President Toni Preckwinkle. Duct-taped over the top was a printed sheet of paper with a message.
“Sleep on this,” it read.
“Per ordinance, every municipality in Cook County that wants to acquire a property from the Scavenger Sale has to submit a development plan — but not the Cook County Land Bank,” it said. “In the last three sales, the Land Bank took 26,533 properties with no plan.”
It was the latest salvo in Pappas’ years-long feud with the land bank and comes on the heels of the biennial Cook County Scavenger set to get underway this month, when Pappas’ office will put up for auction more than 30,000 derelict properties whose owners have fallen far behind on property taxes.
The land bank, a nonprofit chartered by the county in 2013, relies on the Scavenger Sale to fulfill its mission of acquiring delinquent properties and reselling them to developers or homebuyers so they can return to the tax rolls. But the land bank’s practice of scooping up thousands of properties at a time, only to turn many back over into the county’s charge, has infuriated Pappas.
The treasurer wrote a letter to land bank leaders after the last Scavenger Sale in 2019 saying the body had “abused” its unique authority to unilaterally place liens on tens of thousands of delinquent properties in the hopes of winning their deeds.
After scooping up about 27,000 properties of the approximately 96,000 cumulative properties that were put up for auction during the 2015, 2017 and 2019 Scavenger Sales, the land bank returned more than 9,000 back onto the county rolls — only to re-acquire 353 of those properties again, according to the Treasurer’s Office. The result has been to deprive other bidders — including local municipalities — of the opportunity to nab the properties themselves, Pappas has argued.
Pappas followed up with more letters to the land bank last year — first to former executive director Rob Rose in June, and then to new director Eleanor Gorski in
October — demanding to know how many of the properties the land bank still hopes to take to deed.
And in December, Pappas wrote a two-page memo to Gorski asking how the land bank would approach the upcoming Scavenger Sale, as well as its “Vacant Property Giveaway & Sale” scheduled for late December into early January. The sale offered developers and community groups the chance to browse hundreds of vacant properties in the land bank’s inventory on Chicago’s South Side and south suburbs.
“Based on the Land Bank’s history, I have concerns,” Pappas wrote.
Gorski responded in a Jan. 22 letter touting the “overwhelming success” of the sale, saying the land bank had received more than 16,000 applications for the properties.
Gorksi also tried to soothe Pappas’ concerns about the land bank scooping up and then relinquishing properties, writing, “it is our intention to take every tax certificate to deed and therefore we will be returning only a small number of properties to your office.”
The line was bolded and underlined.
Gorski added that the land bank has “refined” its process of working through the bureaucratic morass needed to bring properties to deed. And she noted that while the land bank has only won full ownership of about one-in-three properties it has begun pursuing, that still outshines the average private developer, whose success rate is about 10 percent.
A spokesperson for the land bank wrote in a statement to The Daily Line Sunday night that the nonprofit has “has brought more properties out of the Scavenger Sale and back on the tax rolls than any buyer — public or private in the history of the Scavenger Sale.”
“We look forward to approaching the next scavenger sale with a focus on inventory that can be taken to deed and reactivated with municipal and private partners,” Gorski wrote in her letter.
But Gorski’s response did not satisfy Pappas. The treasurer responded in a written memo on Wednesday saying it was “lacking.”
“The Land Bank has not provided the specific information my office seeks regarding the number of properties it intends to return to the county,” Pappas wrote. “Why does the Land Bank continue to make decisions without any regard for what you described in your letter as ‘a mission we share?’”
Pappas told The Daily Line on Friday that her pillow delivery is an attempt to “shine a light on the inequities” of county rules that put fewer regulations on the land bank than they do for other bidders.
“How can they take 26,000 pieces of property with no plan, when the suburban municipalities and everyone else has to say what they’re going to do with them?” Pappas said.
As of Nov. 30, the land bank had fully acquired 2,918 properties, resold 1,337 and rehabilitated 958. Since 2013, the publicly-run nonprofit’s efforts have redeemed about $14.5 million in property tax revenues for Cook County taxing bodies and generated some $123.5 million in “community wealth,” according to an end-of-year report.
The millions of dollars in tax redemptions “lowers the burden on other taxpayers and ensures that more Cook County residents have a chance for homeownership and stronger neighborhoods,” the land bank spokesperson wrote in their statement Sunday. “The [land bank] has refined its approach to the Scavenger sale over the past three sales, and will further its mission of equitable opportunity by taking even more properties to deed with the close
cooperation of municipal and non-profit partners.