Since 1973, the Animal Care League of Oak Park has been providing food, shelter, and medical needs for homeless cats, dogs and rabbits. But several years ago, this growing organization ran into an obstacle. After purchasing three buildings on Garfield Street, we hit a literal wall in the form of a building we did not own, right in the middle of our property.

The building was a natural fit. However, the lot was foreclosed and had delinquent taxes greater than the value of the property. It was in the Animal Care League’s best interest to purchase it so we could expand and update facilities, and the owner of the building agreed — but he owed a large amount of unpaid taxes that drove the purchase price higher than the property was worth, making an outright purchase impossible.

That’s when the Animal Care League went to the Cook County Scavenger Sale to try to acquire the building — and we had a rude awakening.

The Scavenger Sale is an outdated process by which the county offers the least-wanted tax-delinquent properties it has — properties that have been passed over in previous annual sales — and for years the sale was overrun by large or out-of-town developers. They would acquire the tax certificates of distressed properties in blighted neighborhoods and sit on them, contributing no improvement to the community.

Worse, at the two-year deadline for paying the back taxes and becoming the property’s owner, they would often fail to take the tax certificate to deed. That would send the property back for yet another Scavenger Sale, this time with two more years of owed taxes and the property in worse condition than ever.

Twice an attorney represented the Animal Care League at the Scavenger Sale because the attorney could make sense of the complicated process and requirements. But on both occasions, we were easily outbid by large developers. And each time, those developers did nothing with the property but let it get worse. After 10 years, the property had deteriorated so badly that the sky could be seen through the roof. Rain and snow fell into the building, leading to mold.

That’s when the Animal Care League heard about the newly formed Cook County Land Bank Authority, which works on behalf of community developers, small businesses and nonprofit organizations to acquire vacant and abandoned properties for redevelopment. Once transactions are completed and the Land Bank clears title — wiping out the back taxes and any liens on the property — redevelopment creates jobs, immediate equity, and community wealth for the neighborhood.

The Land Bank acquired the property and re-sold it to the Animal Care League for a reasonable price. This model made it possible for the organization to fulfill its dream of expansion and update facilities. After a challenging few years of delays caused by the pandemic, the Animal Care League will open its newly redeveloped phase soon.

The Land Bank’s model helped us overcome a major challenge around growth and expansion, and it does the same for many organizations throughout Cook County. It prioritizes the little guys because the Land Bank knows that those of us who are from the community have a vested interest in working hard to restore these properties and make them valuable community assets. It also aims to fix the problem of blight where larger developers might have an interest in letting blight remain until it’s more financially attractive for them to address it. The Land Bank model creates win-win-win situations — the developers win by building careers, the communities win by benefiting from jobs and stable property ownership, and the county wins by getting revenue once these properties are generating taxes again.

And in the case of the Animal Care League, we won by expanding our ability to deliver on our mission. More organizations throughout Cook County should have the same opportunity.

Chatka Ruggiero is a former president and current board advisor to the Animal Care League of Oak Park.

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