EDITORIAL — Land Bank 2.0: A revitalizing new generation moves beyond blight removal

Land banks are a powerful, recently-created method of revitalizing cities suffering from depopulation, often combined with deindustrialization. In other words, communities with large inventories of vacant, tax-foreclosed properties.

On October 2 and 3, 2017, I Storm delivered both a keynote (shown above) and a workshop at the annual conference of the Michigan Association of Land Banks in Battle Creek, Michigan.

The keynote focused on the latest trends in community revitalization strategies. The workshop on the following day focused on Land Bank 2.0: the next generation of land banks.

It’s highly appropriate that land banking should be reborn in Michigan, since this was the birthplace of the concept.

In 2002, U.S. Congressman (D) from Michigan Dan Kildee sponsored the LAND BANK FAST TRACK ACT 258 of 2003.
The legislature finds that there exists in this state a continuing need to strengthen and revitalize the economy of this state and local units of government in this state and that it is in the best interests of this state and local units of government in this state to assemble or dispose of public property, including tax reverted property, in a coordinated manner to foster the development of that property and to promote economic growth in this state and local units of government in this state. It is declared to be a valid public purpose for a land bank fast track authority created under this act to acquire, assemble, dispose of, and quiet title to property under this act.

About 70 percent of the approximately 150 land banks that currently exist in the United States were created pursuant to comprehensive state-enabling statutes that authorize local governments throughout a state to create land banks.

According to the Center for Community Progress (CCP), the following eleven states have passed comprehensive state-enabling land bank legislation as of August 2015:

  • Michigan (2004)
  • Ohio (2009)
  • New York (2011)
  • Georgia (2012)
  • Tennessee (2012)
  • Missouri (2012)
  • Pennsylvania (2012)
  • Nebraska (2013)
  • Alabama (2013)
  • West Virginia (2014)
  • Delaware (2015)

Founded in 2010, the Center for Community Progress is the only national nonprofit specifically dedicated to building a future in which vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties no longer exist. They serve as a sort of national association for land banks.

You’re probably wondering “If they’ve only been around since 2004, why do they need to be reinvented already?” Excellent question! I’m glad you asked.

As you can see from the highlighted phrases in the enabling legislation above, land banks were meant to be community revitalization entities. But people and organizations tend to gravitate away from risk, and towards money. Most of the funding made available to land banks has been strictly for blight removal, which usually involves widespread demolition.

Demolition is relatively quick, simple, and risk-free. The opposite is true of community revitalization. It tends to be slow and complex, with uncertain outcomes (risk). Little wonder then, that so many of these community revitalization entities have devolved into little more than demolition agencies. Or, as Dave Allen, Executive Director of the Kent County (Michigan) Land Bank Authority, recently told me, they’ve become “a repository for everyone’s crap.”

There are three key reasons that outcomes from community revitalization efforts are so uncertain:

  1. They don’t clearly define what they mean by “revitalization”, so their vision is unclear;
  2. Vision drives strategy, which is the second problem: most community leaders don’t understand what a strategy is, of how to create an effective one;
  3. Vision and strategy are just two elements of the overall renewal process, which also includes plans, partners, policies, projects, and programs. Nothing in nature or the world of humans is produced without a process.

Most communities lack a clear vision, an effective strategy, and a comprehensive renewal process. Little wonder then that they also lack revitalization. (You can learn more about all three here.)

Of course, not all land banks see themselves only as blight removal agencies.

The Kalamazoo (Michigan) County Land Bank is actually on the leading edge of revitalization.

They’ve adopted the powerful 3Re Strategy (repurpose, renew, reconnect), as seen here on the cover of their 2016 annual report.

And the aforementioned Kent County Land Bank Authority offers an impressive list of revitalizing services to government agencies, non-profits, and for-profit developers, as you can see here.

Here are two paragraphs from a recent Next City article about the Philadelphia Land Bank:
“The land bank has a five-year goal of reactivating roughly 2,000 properties. So far, according to the city, the number of properties sold through the program is 196, and most were vacant lots. Any streamlining Rodriguez does will have to cover mastering the agency’s elaborate acquisition policies. As outlined in the strategic plan, released in February, the criteria for whether or not the land bank can transfer certain parcels depends on the intended re-use. The re-use category also determines the approval process and which city offices and organizations have to weigh in.”

“The ability to be strategic is key, says Frank Alexander, co-founder of Center for Community Progress, a national nonprofit that focuses on vacant properties. While Philly’s five-year targets forecast that the land bank will add 7,727 publicly owned parcels to its holdings, it will also acquire another 1,650 tax-delinquent properties. The agency also has outlined a mix of types of properties for its disposition process. Sixty-five percent of land returned for active use will be for housing, and in an effort to ensure affordability, only 25 percent of that won’t be restricted by income brackets.”

The Land Bank 2.0 dialog was initiated at the Battle Creek conference, and was first announced here in REVITALIZATION on May 15, 2017. The response was extremely enthusiastic, and the next steps in the evolution of Land Bank 2.0 are currently being planned. Email me at storm@revitalization.org if you’d like more information.

About the Author:

Storm Cunningham publishes REVITALIZATION.

A former Green Beret SCUBA Medic, Storm lives in Arlington, Virginia, and is the author of two highly-acclaimed books: The Restoration Economy (Berrett-Koehler, 2002), and Rewealth (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2008). His upcoming 3rd book is RECONOMICS (coming 2019).

His 100+ global client list includes: US State Department, Boeing, Harvard University, Ontario Chamber of Commerce, Israel Planners Association, European Property Italian Conference, University of Guadalajara, National Arbor Day Foundation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, American Institute of Architects, Project Management Institute, US Embassy (Poland), Governor of Montana, Canadian Urban Institute, Santee Cooper, Urban Land Institute, University of Texas, Leadership Cleveland, and many more.

Learn more about his consulting, books, talks, and workshops at StormCunningham.com [Image: Storm keynoting conference of the Planning Institute of Australia (2015). Photo by Adam Beck.]

See article by Cassie Owens in Next City.

See Michigan Association of Land Banks website.

See map of U.S. land banks on CCP website.

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