Home » Blog » Leaders in Land Banking: A Conversation with Adam Zaranko at the Albany County Land Bank

Leaders in Land Banking: A Conversation with Adam Zaranko at the Albany County Land Bank

January 26, 2023


We spoke with the Albany County Land Bank Corporation’s Executive Director Adam Zaranko about affordable housing initiatives, the importance of diversified partnerships, and what’s coming up for the land bank in 2023. 

Adam Zaranko, Albany County Land Bank Executive Director

The Albany County Land Bank recently launched an innovative program to turn vacant properties into affordable housing opportunities. Can you give our readers a little bit of background on what this program is and how it works?

We’ve developed three initiatives designed to leverage partnerships and transform vacant properties into opportunities for affordable housing.

Our Equitable Ownership Program (EOP) uses the land bank’s real estate and reduces traditional barriers that first-time homebuyers—especially members of historically underserved populations—encounter when buying and rehabbing homes. The program makes higher-quality buildings available at a discounted purchase price and pairs eligible participants with resources including access to a construction mentor to assist with the rehab and acquisition and rehab financing through a community development financial institution (CDFI) that serves buyers who cannot access resources from traditional financial institutions.

Our Inclusive Neighborhoods program is designed to increase our local community land trust’s access to real estate—especially in stronger markets—to create more permanent affordable housing. The program emerged from a National Technical Assistance Scholarship through the Center for Community Progress.

Recently, we have been focused on building public-private partnerships to foster more equitable development of vacant properties.

We assemble clusters of vacant properties and partner with qualified and experienced developers to help plan, finance, and redevelop the sites into high-quality, mixed-use developments. These developments will include new, mixed-income affordable housing and amenities that help advance community priorities and benefit the surrounding neighborhood. The approach is designed to help deliver a transformative but balanced project that benefits more stakeholders. We currently have three public-private development partnerships underway in three different neighborhoods of Albany, New York that are comprised of nearly 100 vacant properties.

Finding a lender willing to take on these kinds of programs must have been a challenge! Can you talk about how you were able to make it happen?

Finding a lender willing to work with Land Bank properties, especially within historically redlined neighborhoods and/or with the populations that we strive to create opportunities for was much, much more difficult that it should be. Ultimately, we had to go to a city located nearly three hours away to find an organization with the resources, expertise, capacity, experience, and willingness to partner with us.

We ultimately found the community development financial institution Home HeadQuarters, Inc. Home HeadQuarters is a one-stop-shop, providing educational resources and purchase and construction financing to qualified individuals, families, contractors, and investors seeking to purchase and redevelop properties from the Albany County Land Bank. This partnership creates a new pathway to homeownership and wealth building for people who have difficulty securing the financial resources needed to purchase and rehab buildings. Access to capital is a crucial component of the solution: it’s one of the biggest causes of the racial and economic homeownership gaps and a tremendous barrier to creating more equitable opportunities.

Vacant building in Albany County, before rehab.
Vacant building in Albany County, before rehab.
Vacant building in Albany County, after rehab.
Vacant building in Albany County, after rehab.

What’s been an unexpected outcome of the program so far?

I underestimated how impactful increasing access to capital would be. We started seeing results right away. Before we formed our partnership with Home HeadQuarters, we had sold approximately 235 vacant buildings across five years of operation. Only about a dozen buyers were able to secure full acquisition-rehab financing from traditional financial institutions—and none of the buildings that received financing were in historically redlined neighborhoods, even though buildings in those neighborhoods comprised the vast majority of our building sales.

Since we launched our access to capital partnership, we have had over a dozen buyers secure loans from Home HeadQuarters—many which could not receive financing from traditional lenders. Last year alone, Home HeadQuarters issued over $1 million in first mortgages to purchase and rehab vacant buildings from the Land Bank. I believe increasing access to capital is key to achieving transformative outcomes through reclaiming vacant properties. Land bank/CDFI partnerships have tremendous potential yet seem considerably underutilized and are something that every land bank should explore.

Before and after of a building rehab of a property the Albany County Land Bank sold to the Albany Community Land Trust.
Before and after of a building rehab of a property the Albany County Land Bank sold to the Albany Community Land Trust.

What advice would you give to land bank leaders who are interested in creating pipelines for affordable housing?

  • Partnerships, partnerships, and more partnerships. Land banks can—and should—work with a wide variety of stakeholders. Nearly everything we do involves a private, governmental, community, or nonprofit partner—and our most impactful initiatives involve all.
  • Site control is key. If you can’t control the sites, you can’t create the new opportunities or the outcomes that communities need.  When paired with access to adequate resources, land banks can generate a significant and more equitable economic and social ROI. Land Banks exist in large part to do things that governments and the real estate market can’t—or won’t—do.
  • Take informed risks and try new things. If you want to get a different outcome you need to take a different approach. A well worth path might seem easy to travel but won’t take you to a new place.
  • Be patient. Many issues that land banks help address—such as systemic disparities and breaking the cycle of vacancy, tax foreclosure and disinvestment—took generations to manifest and will take time (and considerable investment) to reverse.
  • Connect with other land banks. In the nearly seven years I’ve been in the practice I’ve yet to meet a land banker who wasn’t willing to connect and share ideas.

What are you most excited about next for the Albany County Land Bank?

We’re hoping 2023 will be a year of growth on many fronts. One exciting initiative we have planned is enabling the new construction of affordable homes on vacant, abandoned, or tax-foreclosed properties. The State of New York is facing a tremendous affordable housing crisis. At the same time, many communities in New York also struggle with large quantities of vacant or underutilized properties. We’re aiming to significantly expand our role in simultaneously reducing the number of vacant properties—especially vacant lots—and increasing the supply of quality, affordable housing through facilitating new construction in addition to rehabs.

One way we’re approaching this is to expand our strategic acquisition, assembly, and marketing of “build-ready” property clusters. These can be paired with the wealth of affordable housing grant programs available through New York State. By pre-assembling sites, we believe can remove a significant impediment to the development process. We will also pilot the construction of a small footprint, single-family house design that may serve as the prototype for creating infill affordable homeownership opportunities on multiple smaller vacant lots located throughout our cities. Beyond building a new quality, affordable home, we see this initiative as an opportunity to uplift partners—such as youth/trade programs and BIPOC contractors and developers. It is our hope that we can refine the design into something that can be scaled and constructed in communities throughout Albany County and perhaps replicated by other land banks across New York State (and beyond!).

Ontario and West Street Redevelopment Project Site, a "build-ready" property cluster.
Ontario and West Street Redevelopment Project Site, a “build-ready” property cluster assembled by the Albany County Land Bank Corporation.

Leaders in Land Banking is a new conversation series with land bank leaders who are working on groundbreaking policies and practices to further the impact land banking can have on addressing vacancy.

Are you a land bank leader who wants to show off the great work at your land bank? Reach out to Brian Larkin, Director, National Land Bank Network at [email protected].

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