Banking on Neighborhood Stabilization

Even the most sophisticated private and nonprofit partnerships for dealing with vacant property will end up with some properties that don’t pencil out. Land banks can step in to keep those properties from dragging down revitalization efforts.

A year ago, the Beach Street corridor of Flint, Mich. was pockmarked with 16 trash-filled vacant lots. Today, this two-acre area a mile south of downtown Flint has been consolidated into Flint River Farm, the city’s largest urban farm, replete with a passive solar hoop house for year-round growing, in what had previously been a blighted stretch of food desert. The two women who farm this land own three of the lots and lease the others from the Genesee County Land Bank .

Neighbors have welcomed the endeavor — for its beauty, for the valuable food choices it offers the community, for the job prospects it has created, and for lending hope to residents who are toughing it out in one of the nation’s most famous Rust Belt cities.

In the decade since Genesee County first took steps to create its nonprofit land bank, a growing number of municipalities, counties, and states have begun to embrace land banks as a tool to systematically address vacant and abandoned properties. A land bank is an entity, public or nonprofit, with the authority to acquire vacant or distressed property, clear title and taxes, and assemble it, redeploy it, or maintain it in strategic ways, rather than based on the short-term highest bid.

Land banks offer public agencies a number of robust options to undercut dynamics in the real estate market that often foment, rather than avert, urban blight. This can deliver real benefits, even in what are arguably the most challenging housing and economic environments this nation has confronted in decades. Properties that are too deteriorated, low-value, or constrained by title problems to be feasibly preserved or rehabbed either by the market, partnerships, or even subsidized nonprofit programs can often be turned into assets, or at least less actively negative influences, by the intervention of a land bank.

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