Across the industrial heartland, many communities face huge challenges with blighted and vacant properties. These challenges affect not only major industrial centers like Cleveland and Detroit, but many smaller cities (such as Springfield, MA, Reading, PA, Syracuse, NY, and many more) as well. Abandoned properties invite crime, reduce property values, raise local maintenance costs, and generally hinder local redevelopment efforts. In cities with declining populations and tight budgets, it’s a major challenge to control, rehabilitate or demolish these blighted buildings and sites.
In recent years, many states and communities are embracing land banks as a means to deal with this issue. Land Banks are independent authorities designed to manage and oversee blighted and tax delinquent properties and land parcels. Land banks acquire properties in various ways, sometimes via purchase of tax-foreclosed properties or passive acceptance of parcels from sheriff’s sales. Acquired properties are often destroyed, but are preferably rehabilitated and resold. In the process, dangerous abandoned structures are eliminated and new homes are created for responsible owners. Two of the best examples of these tools are Michigan’s Genesee County Land Bank and the Fulton County/Atlanta Land Bank Authority.
Land banks have been around for awhile (Here is a good history), but seem to be gaining traction now. Last year, Pennsylvania approved a state land banking program that is now being used in many cities. For example, Philadelphia unveiled its program in December 2013.
The growth of these new land bank models is very promising. (A recent HUD review of trends can be accessed here). The tools are flexible and help achieve multiple goals, from eliminating blight, increasing local tax revenue, and expanding local pools of affordable housing. Land banks can and should be in the tool kit for any community seeking to address major challenges related to abandoned and tax-delinquent properties.