In the sermon on the mount Jesus teaches us "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
This is wise advice for our hearts, but it also points out that our stuff, our material things, are all subject to the forces of deterioation. Houses and neighborhoods are no exception. And while we are at our best when we value relationships with our neighbors and our Lord over things, we are still charged with care of the earth, our neighborhoods and the people and critters that live in them. And the forces of decay which we call "blight" are hard at work in communities all across our country. Sometimes blight is caused by decisions and choices that humans make, sometimes it is because of the forces of the nature and the lack of ability by the property owners to make needed repairs to a house to prevent it from becoming substandard or uninhabitable. One tool for combating blight is called a "land bank."
Although when I hear the term "land bank" my inner Pirate fantasy (which you can read about here) conjures up an image of an ocean shore, this is not what the a land bank is.
A land bank is a public authority designed to hold, manage and develop properties. They have the ability to receive tax-foreclosed properties and donated lands, and through legal and financial mechanisms clear leans, demolish buildings that are beyond repair, and make the properties available to affordable housing programs and private developers. In a nutshell, effective land bank programs help revitalize blighted neighborhoods and return properties back to the tax rolls.
The Americus-Sumter Fuller Center for Housing is participating in a collaborative program that is working torwards creating a land bank authority. It is a long process which I’ll briefly describe below, but first I’d like to share an example of why it is needed.
The property pictured to the left was destroyed by fire. It is on the street where The Fuller Center international headquarters is located and it has been in this condition for months since the fire.
The mortgage lender foreclosed on the home loan and now holds the title to the property. But the lender has made the choice to keep the legal paperwork in their office without filing their deed at the courthouse. Because if they did, the City would condemn the house and force the mortgage company to pay for tearing it down and pay for disposal in a landfill. Without an clear owner to pursue legally, our city has its hands tied. And the value of the properties around on our street around this unit will depriciate because of neighborhood blight.
This is but one scenario. Other times blighted properties are due to absentee landloards, and quite often they are inherited houses that came to beneficiaries who are unable to financially bring them up to code and maintain the curb appeal that would be expected in a community that we could call "decent." Some property owners care and are trying to keep the homes up but unfortunately, some property owners are slum landlords with little intention of improving their rental units.
What a Land Bank Authority can do is to condemn the property as abandoned and a blighted detriment to the community, aquire the title, removed legal judgements, tear down the dangerous structure and then make it available to a builder who can develop the property that will start generating taxes.
Often, government entities are required by legislation to transfer government property. So if the city could condemn and aquire the burnt unit property, they would have to get an appraisal on the property, and bid it out at auction for no less than the tax value. This is cumbersome and often doesn’t make sense. A better alternative would be to give the property to The Fuller Center or another developer who could then build a house for a family in need who would then pay taxes.
In general, our Fuller Center Covenant Partners are not in a position become a land bank authority. But they can benefit from their existance and I would encourage our leadership to work collaboratively with other local housing advocates, local government officials and private developers to support the development of a land bank authority in your service area if one does not exist. If it does, get to know the team that manages the land bank. It could be a great source for obtaining properties and a way to help reverse the ever threatening forces of blight in your community.
In our community the effort to start a land bank has taken a couple of years. Next month our community’s proposal will go before the Georgia legislature and even then it may take up to 6 months to become a reality. We began by surveying our housing needs in the community, working with and learning from our local building inspectors to see what frustrations they were dealing with in combating blight and then visiting other communities around the Georgia to find programs that were working well. We found the communities with the most successful and progressive affordable housing programs were utilizing land banks. We organized our local community stakeholders and convinced them that a land bank authority would be a useful tool in helping to grow our local economy.
Jesus reminded us to keep the big picture in mind when it comes to our hearts and what we value. Local collaborations with like-minded people are the engines that drive our Fuller Center covenant partners. A land bank authority effort is just one example of big picture thinking in which we are engaged.
I’d love to hear stories from you of examples of big picture thinking that your covenant partner is doing!