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Beverly, Mt. Greenwood, Morgan Park

A Life-Changing Moment: Woman Wins A Free Bungalow As Part Of Land Bank Giveaway

Vanessa Johnson beat out 15,000 other applicants to win a newly rehabbed three-bedroom Washington Heights bungalow.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle surprises Vanessa Johnson, winner of the Cook County Land Bank Authority's free home giveaway, with keys to her new Washington Heights Home Friday, Oct. 18.
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WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — For years, Vanessa Johnson dreamed of becoming a homeowner. That dream finally came true when her name was randomly selected in the third annual Cook County Land Bank Authority’s Free Home Giveaway.

Johnson is now the proud owner of a newly rehabbed 1,063-square-foot, three-bedroom, 1 1/2-bathroom bungalow in the 96oo block of South Union Avenue. She beat out 14,999 other residents who entered the giveaway in September.

The giveaway was created by the Cook County Land Bank Authority in 2017 to raise awareness for its Homebuyer Direct program, which allows homebuyers to buy abandoned, vacant homes from the authority at a below-market rate, rehab them and receive immediate equity.

Johnson sits in her finished basement, taking it all in.

“We wanted to raise awareness of the Homebuyer Direct program but do it in a way that would be a blessing to someone,” said Rob Rose, the land bank authority’s executive director. “We kicked a couple of ideas around, but we wanted to go big and let people know that we were serious about this program.”

The Downing Brothers, stars of HGTV’s “Double Down,” spent several months rehabbing the bungalow with a team of six.

“We know that when you see a vacant property that’s brought to life, it restores a sense of pride in that community,” Anthony Downing told Block Club Chicago. “We met neighbors who cheered us on and helped. It became a community effort.”

While some properties require a lot of work, Johnson’s new home just needed a little tender loving care and good interior design, added Downing.

The home, built in 1958, was last sold in 2007 for $170,000. The Land Bank Authority acquired it in April, and the total cost of the rehab was $130,000.

After being presented with keys by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle last week, Johnson toured her new home with her mother and children and received housewarming gifts from GMA Construction Group and Mariano’s in Evergreen Park.

“I’m the first person to own a home in my family,” said Johnson, who has worked as a bursar at Harold Washington College for 17 years. “This is life-altering for me, and it gives me something to pass on to my children and other generations. I’m so excited that my grandson will be able to come in and see this.”

Johnson will only be responsible for property taxes, utilities, insurance and maintenance. She’s required to live in the home for five years, after which she’ll have to freedom to sell or turn it into a rental property.

Since 2017, the Homebuyer Direct program has sold over 170 homes.

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