Will Syracuse Get A Toaster If We Open A Land Bank?

New York State is on the cusp of approving legislation to create land banks, public authorities that are vested with the sole power to develop or demolish tax delinquent vacant properties in designated areas. The bill would authorize the creation of three land banks in the state, in sort of a pilot project.

The Metropolitan Development Association has received funding from the Ford Foundation to help design an Onondaga County/Syracuse land bank. In order to promote the land bank idea, the MDA brought Dan Kildee, the CEO and president of the Genesee County (Michigan) land bank, to Syracuse to discuss how Syracuse would benefit from the creation of its own land bank.

The land bank that Kildee runs includes the city of Flint Michigan and is considered amazingly successful, boasting some impressive figures in its seven years of operation: increasing the home values of area residents by $112 million, developing several commercial buildings in the downtown Flint area, helping 2,300 families avoid tax foreclosure and stay in their homes, rehabbing 50 homes and building 43 new homes on vacant lots.

The most impressive facet of the operation is how thoroughly the land bank controls development in Genesee County, taking over from rogue developers and house flippers. The byword for development is the health of the community, rather than the health of out-of-towners’ bankrolls. In a town that has lost 40% of its population, most of its economy (with the closing of the GM plant that once employed three-quarters of all Flint residents) and state takeover of the bankrupt city government, the Land Bank gives a measure of control back to the community.

Among the aspects of Genesee County’s land bank that would be helpful in Syracuse is the ability to self-finance demolitions (rather than relying on perpetually declining funds from the federal government), the creation of summer jobs for youth maintaining vacant lots/properties and a streamlined process to transfer vacant lots to adjacent owners for more green space, driveways etc.

There are two troubling problems with the Genesee County model that need to be discussed when weighing the benefits of opening a Syracuse land bank:

1) The ratio of demolitions to home rehabilitation and new construction. Flint knocked down over 900 vacant houses and have rehabbed or repaired a shade under 100. The goal is to find a way to preserve the amazing housing stock in Syracuse’s inner city, beautiful large wood frame houses. We do not want to demolish our way out of this problem.

2) Inability of the land bank to control vacant properties that are not tax delinquent. A majority of the 1200 vacant houses in Syracuse are not tax delinquent. How do we avoid the flipping, absentee landlords and deterioration of these properties? Kildee suggested beefing up code enforcement, creating a strict sanction and fine structure for vacant houses that will either see the home renovated or the owners give up the house for taxes, allowing the land bank to assume control.

The evening was full of interesting information and innovative ideas that can be used to help both the city of Syracuse and parts of Onondaga County deal with what has seemed like an intractable problem. So why wasn’t the event covered by the local newspaper and why did so few elected officials from the city and county attend? Props should be given to Common Council President Bea Gonzalez and County Legislators Tom Buckel and Kathleen Rapp for their attendance. The M.D.A. should also be given credit for spearheading an innovative project that could have an important effect on neighborhoods in the city and county traditionally ignored in our rush to address the concerns of downtown and University Hill.

Update: The Post Standard finally chimed in, two days late. This is getting to be standard practice. Evening meetings are either covered in absentia or not at all. This is a direct reflection of the continued downsizing of the P-S staff.

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