When Elaine Lee received a phone call from the Cook County Land Bank Authority last December alerting her that she'd won the organization’s first-ever home giveaway, she almost didn’t believe it.

“I was in shock, and all I could say was ‘Oh my god,’ ” Lee says. “It’s like winning the lottery — I can’t even explain how happy and grateful I was.”

On January 5, CCLBA handed her the keys to her new home on the 8600 block of South Parnell Avenue, allowing the lifelong Chicagoan and former Altgeld Gardens resident another shot at homeownership.

This holiday season, CCLBA is once again offering a home free of charge for its 2018 Home Giveaway Lottery — this time, a 2,000-square-foot single-family home in west suburban Maywood. The contest is an effort to raise the profile and awareness of the organization’s Homebuyer Direct Program, a 16-month-old initiative that offers prospective homeowners fixer-upper homes at below-market prices.

“Giving away a house gets people’s attention,” says CCLBA​ executive director Robert Rose. “As we’re acquiring vacant and abandoned homes, we want people to know that there’s an opportunity to buy below-market rate and put in sweat equity.”

CCLBA formed in 2013 in the wake of the Great Recession. Its mission is to acquire vacant and abandoned properties, satisfy any outstanding mortgages or back taxes, and then coordinate the sale of the properties to individual homeowners or investors. The idea is to cut through the red tape that created these so-called “zombie” properties to reduce blight and return value to the neighborhoods most affected by the foreclosure crisis.

The CCLBA team with Elaine Lee, the winner of 2017's Home Giveaway Lottery Photo: cook county land bank Authority

CCLBA acquires vacant properties and homes through the Cook County Treasurer's Office “Scavenger Sale,” a biannual clearing of tax-delinquent properties throughout the county. This year, the organization acquired an additional 3,189 lots through this sale, bringing its total inventory to 8,500 properties available for purchase below market rate. But the organization’s Homebuyer Direct Program is geared specifically for owner-occupier purchasers seeking residential properties for rehab or immediate occupancy.

CCLBA has sold 140 homes through the program, according to Rose. “We keep hearing this story about Chicago losing population, particularly in the South and West sides,” he says, speaking to the post-recession trend of foreclosures and disinvestment in predominantly African American communities. “We’re doing our part to give rehabbers and developers a chance to participate in the economy and offer affordable housing stock to residents to keep people in the city and make Chicago more viable.”

The Maywood home being offered for this year’s giveaway is still being rehabbed, but once completed, the property will be handed over to the winner.

There are a few strings attached, though. The new homeowner will be responsible for property taxes, home insurance, and must keep the property as their permanent residence for five years.

But the opportunity to possess a home free and clear is a life-changing one, Lee says.

“At the time they called me, I was sitting in my sister’s house, and I went from no place to live to having my own home in a matter of seconds. I was so excited, it was like my heart was about to burst out my chest.”

Registration for CCLBA’s Home Giveaway Lottery closes on Friday, December 14.