As REALTORS®, we’re uniquely positioned to make an outsized impact in our communities. Strong neighborhoods benefit us all – getting involved is self-interest. It means less crime and violence, more job opportunities, higher credit scores and increased ownership rates. It also puts you face-to-face with people who could turn into future clients.
We’ve put together this guide to help you know where you can get started identifying key stakeholders and programs to help strengthen communities and benefit your clients.
BE ACTIVE IN YOUR CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
Chambers of commerce promote and protect the interests of the business community in your area. They have a strong neighborhood network and help to coordinate efforts with the local aldermen, the City and other community and civic partners.
Chambers of commerce are an important place to start, as they support the economic vitality of your neighborhood. Their activities could include anything from advocating for uniform awnings on a new commercial strip to establishing a farmer’s market, lobbying for better servicing from Streets & Sanitation and assisting community businesses with grants and award entries. The leaders of your local chamber will know important contacts in the press as well as the politicians working to serve your neighborhood.
In Chicago, we have both a city-wide Chamber of Commerce, in addition to local ones in many of the 77 neighborhoods. You can find a full list on the City of Chicago website. Can’t find your community on the list? You can start one! ChicagoREALTOR.com has resources to help you get started.
Your local chamber of commerce can help you with:
- Attaining neighborhood and local business information
- Starting a new business
- Troubleshooting City-related issues for small businesses
- Connecting businesses to financial resources
- Providing opportunities for business-to-business networking
- Assisting with employment and workforce development
- Helping market to consumers (your neighbors!)
- Connecting your business to the local community
Gail Spreen, Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty, has been involved with the Streeterville Chamber of Commerce for over 20 years. “Supporting the Chamber is important to my business as it shows that I am an invested, interested and key player in the Streeterville neighborhood,” she said. “Ensuring that the business community survives, supports each other and creates opportunities for the neighborhood helps keep the area thriving and growing. REALTORS® should be very involved in their Chambers as they are a resource for business and for creating economic development in the neighborhood.”
Getting involved could mean anything from serving on a committee, helping put together newsletters, volunteering to staff an event or helping develop programming like a movie night, street festival or concert. Chambers also sometimes ask members to help throw educational workshops (property tax assessments, for example) or survey local businesses to get performance metrics and identify what resources are needed in the communities. Your local chamber will have a contact for you to reach out to and get started!
SUPPORT COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT CORPORATIONS (CDC)
Chambers of commerce aren’t the only tools used to improve and maintain the vitality of our neighborhoods. Community Development Corporations (CDCs) are common in challenged neighborhoods, where the focus is on economic development. They are equipped to tackle issues like affordable housing development, job training, education and other social programs – all of which help to make strong communities. Most CDCs are funded through private donors and government grants and their board includes community residents, while chambers mostly cater to local business owners who may or may not live in the area.
Zeke Morris, EMA Realty & Management, is involved with a local CDC, the Greater Chatham Initiative. “As a REALTOR®, I want the community to know that not only am I committed to listening to concerns and goals, but I want to be a part of the solution,” he said. “We are interdependent upon each other and being present goes a long way to build trust. As the community goes, so goes my business. I am thankful for the Greater Chatham Initiative, because it fosters vision and collectively works toward the goal of a vibrant community.”
Volunteering for a local CDC could include anything from serving on their board to helping implement programming and identify partners for key initiatives, including community and housing development, preservation, education and safety efforts.
Tony Hardy, Marcus & Millichap, also works with the Greater Chatham Initiative. “The work we do there makes a direct impact in the Chatham Community,” Hardy said. “The real time boots-on-the-ground flow of information from the team at GCI helps me keep real estate investors in position to make the most informed decisions.”
A few prominent CDCs in Chicago include:
- Greater Southwest Community Development Corp
- Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp
- Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp
- Lawndale Christian Development Corp
- The Resurrection Project
- Edmund’s Redevelopment Corporation
- CNI- Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives
LEARN ABOUT THE COOK COUNTY LAND BANK’S PROGRAMS
The Cook County Land Bank plays a transformative role in building strong communities. It was formed in 2013 to address the large inventory of vacant residential, industrial and commercial property in Cook County. The Land Bank acquires, holds and transfers interest in real property throughout Cook County to promote redevelopment and reuse of vacant, abandoned, foreclosed or tax-delinquent properties. It also supports targeted efforts to stabilize neighborhoods and stimulate residential, commercial and industrial development. It functions as a unit of Cook County government, funded primarily with grants, contributions and revenues from transactions. CCLBA is the largest land bank by geography in the country and is governed by a Board of Directors, including Chicago REALTOR® Sarah Ware, Ware Realty Group.
“If you’re doing business in Cook County, the Cook County Lank Bank is another form of inventory for your clients that you need to know about,” she said.
Two of their programs offer ways you can make a difference in transforming neighborhoods in need of investment:
- Homebuyer Direct Program: The Land Bank’s Homebuyer Direct Program helps break down homeownership barriers by empowering prospective homeowners who may be interested in directly purchasing, rehabbing and living in the home to purchase property at below-market prices. This is a good opportunity for your clients to engage in the purchase and rehab of a home to build equity, while also finishing a home to their tastes! The Land Bank also has a number of lending partners that specialize in purchase/rehab loans such as the 203K product. A list of all their partners participating in their Homebuyer Direct Program can be found on their website.
- Tax Certificate Program: Putting vacant and abandoned properties back into use is a critical part of the Land Bank’s work. To revitalize and reboot distressed neighborhoods, they make available properties that have been tax delinquent for some time. Often, these parcels are abandoned, creating blight and dragging down the livelihood of their communities and potential to prosper, and the back taxes and fines exceed the value of the property itself, making redevelopment virtually impossible. The Land Bank’s tax certificate program extinguishes the outstanding tax amounts so those who have a plan for putting the property back into productive use have a clear path to do so. The Land Bank looks to partner with community-based developers, local not-for-profits, block clubs, community organizations, homeowners, faith-based organizations and others to revitalize and reboot distressed neighborhoods, reduce unnecessary vacancies and fill unique community needs, like community gardens, play lots, basketball courts and open spaces.
You can fill out an application to become a prospective property owner through the Lank Bank via their website. The Lank Bank is also accepting applications from individuals and organizations who are interested in donating and conveying property. They also occasionally post RFPs on their site for developers, broker services and more. Keep an eye out for ways you can be of assistance to this critical community program.
UNDERSTAND THE PROPERTY TAX APPEALS PROCESS
Understanding the property tax appeals process to help your clients avoid overpaying is a key skill for any REALTOR®. Properties in Cook County are reassessed every three years, and property taxes are based on these assessments. Once assessment notices are mailed, by township, a property owner has 30 days to file an appeal. If unsuccessful at the Assessor’s office, owners can appeal once more to the Board of Review, which follows another schedule.
Be sure you’re notifying your clients when their township opens for appeal! And, be sure you’re educating them on the importance of appealing their assessment. This will help keep their property tax burden in check.
FIND A PROPERTY’S PIN
Every property in Chicago is assigned a Property Index Number (PIN). This numerical code is the legal description of a piece of land as defined for the purposes of real estate taxation and points to its location on county tax maps.
The best place to find a PIN is a deed or tax bill. You can also look up a property’s PIN via the Cook County Assessor’s website if you have the property address.
FIND TRAFFIC COUNTS
When you’re looking to bring investment and new business to your community, one of the questions you should be able to answer is the average daily traffic count (ADT). This is like a census count of vehicles on any given city street. These counts provide a close approximation to the actual number of vehicles passing through a given location on an average weekday. You can find a map with ADTs for the City of Chicago through the Chicago Department of Transportation. This data is updated approximately every 10 years.
SMALL WAYS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
If you’re looking for small ways to make a community-wide impact, check out these two programs:
Rain Barrel Programs
If you or your clients are looking for green-friendly ways to make a small impact, look into the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago’s rain barrel program. Rain barrels capture rainwater from roofs and save it for when you may need it. They can be used for many things: washing your car, watering your lawn and cleaning. Because rainwater is naturally free of chlorine, lime and calcium, many gardeners swear it’s better for their plants. Plus, keeping water out of the sewer system helps to prevent sewer overflows and flooding.
The rain barrels are made of 50-75% recycled content and include leaf and mosquito filter screens, a spigot, overflow adaptor and overflow hose. All Cook County residents can purchase a rain barrel for $45.78 (including tax), with free delivery to your property and detailed instructions to connect your barrel to your downspout and/or link it to a second barrel.
Community gardens have the potential to beautify vacant lots, augment local food supplies and enhance the urban environment. They increase the availability of fresh, healthy produce in neighborhoods, in addition to providing space for recreation and socializing for citizens. Some gardens partner with local businesses to provide food and educational opportunities. They are a convenient and fun way to create volunteer and leadership opportunities, and they help to encourage neighbor-to-neighbor discourse. Plus, communal gardens enliven neighborhoods by improving neighbor health and increasing the value of surrounding properties.
As a REALTOR®, you have a unique advantage. Every community has a variety of public spaces, mostly recognized as parks, streets and plazas. But, public spaces such as alleys, neglected courtyards, stairways and land awaiting redevelopment could be the city’s most underutilized and potentially valuable assets. Improving deteriorated or underutilized spaces will increase their usage and usefulness – which in turn, can strengthen and enrich a community. You can help by identifying spaces and their potential for the benefit of entire communities.
Start by identifying empty lots or sites ripe for development. Neighborhoods that have experienced blight or are in the midst of food deserts are excellent examples of how a community garden can transform a community. Blighted lots, cleaned up and given the structure of a community garden, can lead to rejuvenation of the neighborhood, as well as increased development interest and property values.
Neglected or vacant spaces in your community have the potential to be transformed – permanently or even temporarily – into a community garden, which is a benefit to your clients and your community. The Chicago Park District has a wealth of resources available, including guidelines, petitions, applications and liability waivers. A few years ago, we partnered with the Peterson Garden Project on the Chicago Association of REALTORS® Community Garden – founder LaManda Joy wrote the book, Start a Community Food Garden: The Essential Handbook, which can also help you get started.