The state of land banks in 2015: An interview with Frank Alexander

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Land Banks and Land Banking CoverThe second edition of Land Banks and Land Banking, the ground-breaking book by Frank S. Alexander, was released earlier this month. It builds on the legacy of the 2011 first edition with fresh insights and resources for practitioners and policy-makers.

With about 120 land banks and land banking programs now located around the country, we spoke with Frank, who is the Sam Nunn Professor of Law at Emory University and co-founder/senior advisor to Community Progress, to learn more about what those land banks are facing as well as the impetus behind his new book. Read the transcript below — and then download a free copy of Land Banks and Land Banking, 2nd Ed.

Why did you decide to write a second edition of Land Banks and Land Banking?

Frank Alexander (FA): This new second edition was prompted primarily by the rapid growth in state land bank enabling legislation. I prepared the 2011 edition largely as a resource tool for state and local government leaders and advocacy groups seeking to learn about land banks and land banking. I included in that edition a “template” for state land bank enabling legislation. What happened in the forty-eight months following the release of that first edition far exceeded our expectations, as state land bank legislation was adopted in eight new states. This new second edition is designed is part to address the breadth and depth of these new experiences.

In the second edition of Land Banks and Land Banking, Appendix C includes a detailed comparison of different states’ land bank enabling laws. What surprised you the most in terms of different states’ approaches to land banking?

FA: There are three striking features as one looks at the comparative analysis of the ten states that have adopted statewide land bank legislation in the past 12 years (eight in the past 4 years). The first feature is that these ten states would not be considered to have anything in common from a social, political, economic, or historical perspective. What they now have in common is a determination to use land banks and land banking as a tool to address vacant and abandoned properties. The second feature is that land bank enabling legislation needs to be carefully crafted to fit the different legal systems of each state. No two states have the same allocation of powers between state, city, and county governments and no two states have the same approaches to property tax enforcement or code enforcement. The third feature is that in some states the impetus for land bank legislation is driven primarily by the issues confronting one dominant municipality while in other states the issues of abandonment are shared by many communities across the state.

What, in your view, is one of the greatest challenges that land banks are facing today?

FA: The greatest challenge facing each and every land bank today is simply clarity of mission and focus. The sheer volume of vacant, abandoned and substandard properties and the complexity of dealing with them inevitably creates a desire and expectation that land banks will be silver bullets to solve all of the community’s problems. It is imperative that land banks be created at the local government level with clearly defined expectations, goals, and tactics for addressing very specific problem properties in very specific locations.

What advice do you have to offer to a municipality that is thinking about creating a land bank?

No municipality should consider creating a land bank without first diagnosing and assessing the elements of the problem that characterizes its target inventory of vacant and abandoned properties.  If the core underlying problem is the property tax foreclosure system, that should be addressed first.  If it is the lack of an efficient and effective housing and building code enforcement system, that should be addressed. A land bank is only one tool, one tactic, and it makes sense to create a land bank if and only if it is designed to address a specific issue.

Land banks began to proliferate during the peak of the foreclosure crisis. Now that the height of that crisis has passed, how do you see the role of land banks changing over the next few years?

One of the most fun and exciting aspects of working in the field of vacant and abandoned properties – and land banks and land banking – is to see the tremendous variety and creativity that each local land bank experiences as it moves forward. Land banks can and should be flexible and innovative tools to be adapted to changing social and economic circumstances. In some communities they serve as a vital link in the development of affordable housing; in others they are a catalyst for conversion of abandoned structures into entirely new uses; in yet others they serve a major role in new land use patterns such as open spaces and community gardening.