By Barbara Ray
Chicago’s southern suburbs have been through hard times ever since the steel mills began closing in the 1980s. Populations began moving north and west. Businesses departed. And in recent years, the foreclosure crisis ripped through the remaining neighborhoods.
About one-fourth of the housing stock—or approximately 48,000 units—in South Cook County has been affected by foreclosure since 2005, according to DePaul University’s Institute of Housing Studies database.
Crain’s Chicago Business put it more bluntly: Will the foreclosure crisis kill Chicago?
But amid these challenges the area has adopted innovative, collaborative approaches to stemming the spiral of foreclosures.
In South Cook County, for example, 19 municipalities banded together to create the Chicago Southland Housing and Community Development Collaborative, which now counts 23 jurisdictions among its members. With support from regional intermediaries like the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), the group is leveraging resources and forging new public and private efforts to stabilize housing markets and plan for economic development, and it is drawing on new and innovative tools to help achieve its goals.
The first tool is the new Southland Community Development Fund, which leverages public and private funds for priority transit-oriented development opportunities across jurisdictions. Robin Snyderman, of Brick Partners, called the Fund’s formation “incredibly promising.”
The second tool is the South Suburban Land Bank. Spearheaded in 2012 through the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, the land bank is working to stabilize the surrounding communities by buying, holding, and when the time is right, developing vacant properties. Because land banks can take the form of a quasi-governmental entity, they can more quickly scrub the titles clean of liens and taxes, making them easier to sell and ultimately helping to stem the downward spiral of a community. Cook County recently created its own land bank to address the growing problem. The goal, according to planning documents, was to work closely with the South Suburban Land Bank. To that end, the land banks recently succeeded in winning a $6 million award through the national foreclosure settlement with banks.
In addition, Cook County is working with CMAP to launch a new strategic planning process that will help realign a range of federal resources to better support municipal collaborations on housing, transportation planning, economic development, and social services. This process will lead to a new Consolidated Plan and Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for the County.
These innovative examples of regional thinking and collaboration are encouraging. But the process has not been without struggle. As we document in our case studies, challenges stem largely from the novelty of the organizational structure. Federal grants and state and city government offices are often not equipped to work with these kinds of collaboratives when issuing grants or other support.
Despite the hurdles, collaborative efforts in Chicago’s Southland and in its western suburbs have managed to make headway. Together the South and West Cook County collaboratives have secured more than $70 million to invest in their sub-regional goals, and other suburbs are seeking to mimic the efforts.
In fact, when asked what distinguished transformative resilience among distressed communities, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke singled out “the presence of a community leader and collaboration around a vision for the future.” By that standard, Chicago is on the right track.