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From the Great Recession to COVID-19: Land Banks are Critical to Long-Term Equitable Recovery

June 1, 2020


Today’s COVID-19 public health crisis is evolving. As governments and business work to anticipate the potential housing and economic crisis that could follow, there is renewed focus and interest around land banks, which gained traction after the Great Recession. Land banks are governmental entities that acquire, hold, and steward vacant, abandoned, deteriorated, and tax-delinquent properties to support local community goals – and a critical tool and opportunity for equitable recovery [1]

The interest is merited given land banks have proven to be flexible community development tools. They have successfully stabilized and revitalized neighborhoods impacted by a long history of inequitable policies and practices and disrupted by any number of shocks, such as housing market crashes and financial crises, and climate change events. As America sits on the verge of another unprecedented crisis that is certain to disrupt the places we call home, now is the time to invest in land banks to successfully navigate this public health crisis and its implications on neighborhoods across the country.

Land Banks: Triaging Neighborhood Crises and Catalyzing Community Transformation

The modern-day land bank emerged around the year 2000 in Flint, Michigan. It could have easily been Gary, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, or any number of communities that shared a common struggle of the accumulated weight of too many destabilizing factors that had emerged over decades:  historic racist land use and housing policies that segregated our communities and concentrated poverty; white flight to the suburbs and steep population losses; the disappearance of manufacturing jobs; and the downward cycle of reduced property tax revenues and chronic disinvestment.

In each of these former industrial centers, large and small, the effects of these destabilizing factors were also common: there was a steady rise in vacancy and abandonment, and Black and Brown communities were disproportionately impacted.

The local systems and practices in these communities were simply inadequate to meet the challenge. Saddled with financial and legal liabilities—or needing costly repairs that outstripped the value of the home—most problem properties in weak housing markets eventually slid into the municipality’s delinquent property tax collection and foreclosure process.

In some communities, local governments effectively privatized the delinquent property tax collection and enforcement process, sold off the tax debt, and left property owners vulnerable to third-party investors who cared little about community outcomes.

In other communities, governments relied on the auction process, selling off tax-delinquent properties to speculators and unknown entities. At the tax auction, some of the worst problem properties often went without a bid or were sold for pennies on the dollar to bidders who milked all profit from these properties by rarely making improvements or paying property taxes, but still renting the property without regard for tenant safety or health.

In some communities, the most deteriorated problem properties became trapped in limbo, mired in clunky legal systems or ignored by local officials.

The status quo was broken, ineffective, and inequitable, and property by property, neighborhoods were falling into crisis.

In that slow churning decline, piled up over decades, the modern-day land bank emerged in Flint, Michigan. This new governmental entity was pushed largely by an innovative county treasurer who teamed with a dirt lawyer from Atlanta (both of whom would later become the co-founders of Community Progress) to rethink everything. They understood a systemic challenge that couldn’t be met by current tools and laws required bold systemic reform. They designed and secured approval for state legislation authorizing taxing jurisdictions to create new governmental entities, land banks. They also proposed a series of surgical reforms to the state’s property tax foreclosure systems to optimize the reach and impact of these new land banks.

The work took hold. Since then, this innovative governmental entity has become a flexible community development tool that has been adapted to triage the inequitable impacts of decline and crises and catalyze community transformation.

Following the Great Recession, which destabilized neighborhoods and produced a glut of new problem properties, the national land bank movement surged. Approximately 15 states passed some form of land bank enabling legislation between 2009 and 2019, almost all of them with support from Community Progress to varying degrees. According to our online National Land Bank Information Headquarters, the national count of land banks has eclipsed 200.

The Great Recession hasn’t been the only recent trigger for communities to consider land banks.  As the effects of climate change continue to disrupt communities without prejudice—leaving behind emotional trauma, fractured neighborhoods, and a sudden new inventory of damaged, abandoned structures—land banks are again emerging as possible solutions for long-term recovery efforts. Land banks are being championed in Houston and Puerto Rico to help triage the wreckage of hurricanes and floods, with a much stronger emphasis on equity, a principle too many disaster recovery efforts have lost.

Whether the Rust Belt or Sun Belt; urban, suburban, or rural communities; or red or blue political enclaves, land banks have traversed the seemingly intractable divisions that currently define our landscape. Local leaders at every point along the political spectrum have run up against the limits of the broken status quo, and turned to land banks as unique and nimble tools accountable to the public to triage neighborhood crises and decline and catalyze community transformation for years to come. While the nature of the challenge may differ, the resulting inventory of problem properties is all too similar. So too are the social, economic, and fiscal harms these properties impose on local governments, neighborhoods, and neighbors.

And now we are at the precipice of a new and unprecedented crisis with COVID-19. If our emergency relief efforts fail to hold together our neighborhoods and sufficiently provide support for our more vulnerable populations, then expect land banks to play an outsized role in the long-term recovery efforts. The disruptions and inequitable impacts in too many of our neighborhoods will be significant.

Land Banks: The Basics, The Impact

A land bank is a governmental entity that can intervene in the cycle of neighborhood decline, and, on behalf of the public, acquire, hold, and then steward problem properties back to responsible users with predictable outcomes that advance local priorities.

Given the vast majority of problem properties are also tax-delinquent, the most effective land banks are directly linked to the local property tax enforcement process, and are granted special powers through state enabling legislation to: (i) intervene in the foreclosure process ahead of speculators and investors; (ii) cost-effectively acquire properties from this pipeline, (iii) clear title, and (iv) flexibly dispose of properties to responsible users that promise to meet community needs.

This strategic linkage to local property tax systems is not trivial: Community Progress estimates about 90% of the entire inventory held by land banks across the country has been acquired through the property tax foreclosure pipeline.

Land banks need more than optimal state enabling legislation to function equitably, effectively, and efficiently. The most successful land banks are also backed by strong leadership, local financial support, collaborative multi-sector partnerships, and are committed to transparency, accountability, equity, and inclusion.

The impacts across the field have been impressive:

  • Land banks in rural and urban communities across New York have attracted more than $120 million in grants and private investment to address thousands of problem properties, returning millions of dollars in land value to the tax roll.
  • In Huntington, WV, a community hit hard by the shrinkage of the coal industry, a small municipal land bank demolished 104 properties in 2019 alone as part of a public safety campaign to combat the local opioid crisis.
  • Land banks in Ohio, which uniquely benefit from a clever recurring, annual funding mechanism established as part of their state’s 2009 land bank enabling legislation, have innovated some of the most creative housing partnerships in the country, turning tax-foreclosed properties to housing choices for domestic violence victims, refugees, justice-involved individuals, college graduates, and low-income families and individuals.
  • Several land banks across Michigan have mobilized and compensated teams of passionate residents to clean and green large inventories of vacant land, and channeled millions of federal dollars to support neighborhood stabilization efforts.
  • In Atlanta, GA, the local land bank and community land trust have forged a partnership to direct land bank properties located near public recreational assets to community-ownership and permanent affordable housing.

Land banks have moved from the fringe to the center of equitable community development. These nimble, locally-driven governmental entities are directing problem properties to productive reuse in support of inclusive neighborhoods and community resiliency, helping to unwind historic, unjust practices that have harmed Black and Brown populations, left behind too many neighborhoods, and fractured our communities—economically, spiritually, and physically.

How We Can Help

Community Progress, in partnership with a growing national network of trailblazing lank banks and statewide land bank associations, has learned a great deal the last ten years. Our organization—from technical assistance to education and policy—is ready to work across the field of community development to deploy this shared expertise to not only prevent the long-term harms of COVID-19 to neighborhoods and neighbors, but also to promote an equitable recovery. We are also lifting-up the voices of land bank leaders to state and federal officials to make the case for the substantial dedicated funding that will be needed to help land banks drive and coordinate critical recovery efforts in the communities they serve.

Now more than ever, dedicated federal funding is needed for publicly-accountable entities to be positioned to respond more intentionally and actively to the coming disruptions to neighborhoods and local real estate markets. Land banks working within a network of local partners and nonprofits, must be sufficiently funded now to help direct, once and for all, an equitable response to the systemic challenges that COVID-19 has fully exposed, with tens of millions of Americans unjustly served by the status quo, or so precariously living on the edge.

Whether in Kentucky or California, we need a more humane and effective approach to sheltering the unhoused. Whether in Miami or Muncie, we need to bring more real estate assets under community control, and help build local wealth. We need to ratchet up the production of quality, affordable housing to unprecedented levels in every community—urban, rural, and suburban. All across America we need to accelerate our commitment to inclusion, and rebuild for resiliency. This recovery work can only be funded by the federal government, as local and state governments are already facing staggering budget shortfalls, and could be crippled for years.

When properly funded, land banks are proven tools, accountable to the public, that can work across a range of markets to support equitable long-term recovery efforts. As we stare down the coming housing and economic challenges as a result of COVID-19, land banking will prove essential.

But rather than using land banks and other tools to restore “normal,” we have to deploy them in a manner that moves us away from what has too long been normalized. This crisis can serve as an opportunity to finally tackle the systemic inequities that undermine individual and public health, as well as individual security and the common good.

As we plan for and implement recovery, let us center equity, inclusion, and resiliency. Let us be collaborative, bold, and compassionate. Maybe, just maybe, we can rise from this crisis with a new normal that promises dignity, security, and opportunity for all in inclusive, healthy neighborhoods worth calling home.

For more information on the role that land banks and land banking programs can play in the equitable recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, please join Kim Graziani, Vice President and Director of National Technical Assistance, for a webinar on June 11 at 12:00 noon EDT (new date and time).

[1] For the purposes of this blog, problem properties refer to vacant, abandoned, deteriorated, or tax-delinquent properties.

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