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Chicago Needs A ‘Marshall Plan’ To Develop Vacant Lots

Chicago and Cook County’s Land Bank has deposits of more than 51,300 vacant and abandoned properties, but developers are not making significant withdrawals.

According to a new report by County Treasurer Maria Pappas, the 81-year-old Land Bank’s “Scavenger-Sale” program for vacant and abandoned properties has failed.

Developer and small renovators often bid but generally do not close on the vacant lots and abandoned properties because of burdensome bureaucratic red tape. Bids on 80% of the properties do not make it through a complex, lengthy 75-point process. Nearly 7,300 properties have had delinquent taxes for two decades.

As a result, Pappas says, the parcels act as a bureaucratic road block to the revitalization of struggling minority city neighborhoods—including Englewood, Greater Grand Crossing, Park Manor, Auburn Gresham, Chatham, North Lawndale and Austin.

“Nobody wants these properties because they are in areas that are losing population, have high crime and aren’t worth the property taxes you have to pay to own them,” said Pappas.

In addition to the Scavenger-Sale list, the city owns another 15,000 properties, mostly in compromised socio-economic areas.

Papas urged the Illinois General Assembly, which originally authorized the Scavenger Sale back in 1939, to come up with revised, innovative solutions for restoring such properties to the tax rolls.

Every two years, Cook County conducts the Scavenger Sale to auction tens of thousands of mostly vacant and often abandoned properties with a significant amount of unpaid taxes. However, more than half of the properties bid on in the 2015 and 2017 auctions were never transferred and developed, the report says.

While reform is needed in the Land-Bank program, experts say the problem of vacant and abandoned property is more complex than just improving the Scavenger Sale process.

Black population loss in Chicago has topped 200,000 people in recent decades, an exodus that began long before the Great Recession. Disinvestment in Chicago’s African American neighborhoods dates back to the 1950s redlining and block-busting era—long before the riots, vandalizing and burning that followed Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.

Here are some innovative suggestions The Home Front column gathered from experts to help the General Assembly and the city rid Cook County of vacant properties, generate jobs and create a housing renaissance in the blighted areas:

  • A Marshall Plan. Cook County needs to create a bold, sweeping vacant-land development plan like the U.S. initiated to rebuild Germany and Europe after World War II. Of course, this would require a $1-billion urban-renewal investment by the federal government over a period of years.

  • Enterprise zones. Identify vacant-lot areas near CTA elevated lines and public transportation that can be developed quickly using existing Transit-Oriented Development incentives.

  • Build a Chicago casino. The vacant 37-acre site of the former Michael Reese Hospital on the Near South Side is a prime site for construction of a world-class gambling casino that would generate hundreds of construction jobs. The city spent $80 million to acquire the site, and already has invested more than $100 million into the neighborhood infrastructure during the Great Recession.

  • Build more mixed-income housing. Looking back on the reign of Mayor Richard M. Daley, Boss Daley’s son should be applauded for tearing down a half-dozen of the city’s most infamous public-housing projects his father built, and replacing them with “mixed-income communities” between 2003 and 2006. Oakwood Shores, a 94-acre mixed-income community on Oakwood Boulevard (39th Street) between Langley and Ellis avenues in the Oakland/North Kenwood neighborhood, was built on the site of the former Ida B. Wells public housing project. The successful plan called for 3,000 new for-sale condominiums and townhomes, market-rate and affordable rental units.

  • New-home construction. New home-building is booming in Chicago’s suburbs, and builders such as Pulte Homes, Toll Brothers and Lennar are always shopping for vacant land. The city should give the builders free vacant land and work with them to develop affordable housing on acreage donated from the Land Bank as long as union-trained minority workers are hired to do the work. Housing could be Section 8 and market-rate rentals and for-sale units.

  • Transform vacant factory buildings. Some abandoned industrial properties could become centers for factory-built pre-fabricated affordable housing units. The units could be erected quickly with a crane, then, mechanicals, including solar panels, could be hooked up on-site by union workers.

  • Expand trade-union jobs. Carpenter, electrical and plumbing unions should play a key role in the vacant-lot development plan. Abandoned school buildings should be opened and refitted as educational centers for young minority apprentices to be trained in the building trades.

  • Innovative housing-design ideas. Because land would be free and builders are essentially working with a blank canvass, innovative architects and land planners should be encouraged to develop planned-unit, suburban-style sub-neighborhoods with curving streets, in-fill parks, ponds, and adjoining retail and schools as anchors.

  • Urban farming. Some vacant acreage in the city already is being utilized for urban farming. Now that marijuana is legal, the city should create a program to grow pot in greenhouses on vacant lots, sell it in city-owned retail stores and tax grass heavily. The pot business in Illinois recently surpassed the $100-million threshold in total sales for the first time. Recreational marijuana sales generated a record $75 million across the state during October of 2020. Pot will generate jobs. Of course, security will be needed to keep the marijuana greenhouses safe.

For more housing news, visit Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit


“The book is Escaping Condo Jail by Sara Benson and Don DeBat. I would say that anybody thinking about buying a condo, or even anybody serving on a condo board, or anybody who has any connection to a condo, this is must reading—all 600 and something pages. Thanks a lot for a great book!”


Steve Sanders, “Your Money Matters” WGN TV, December 22, 2014

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