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Bank On It

by Miriam Axel-Lute on September 26, 2012


Albany has a vacant buildings problem. The number may fluctuate depending on who you ask, and how you define “vacant,” but the latest count by the city puts us at over 800.

This certainly not unique to us, but that doesn’t change the fact that abandoned buildings are a disaster—they represent not only lost tax revenue on the buildings themselves, but lost revenue as the value of surrounding property declines and vastly increased costs to city services (one study by NeighborWorks America put it at $30,000 per year in added fire, police, emergency repairs, and possible demolition). The suffering caused to neighbors by the crime, physical danger and sense of neglect concentrations of abandoned buildings foster is harder to measure, but a major hurdle to creating healthy neighborhoods of opportunity for all.

Then there’s loss of our historic housing stock and weakening of the physical fabric of neighborhoods as empty buildings are allowed to deteriorate beyond repair and be torn down (though there is quite a bit of debate about when the ‘beyond repair’ stage arrives—so sometimes they are lost unnecessarily). This is an environmental disaster, as the embodied energy of these old houses is lost, landfill waste created, and energy expended in the demolition and new construction far above what would be in rehab. (But rehab would create more jobs.) Albany has its eyes on being a sustainable city. That means getting a handle on this wildly wasteful, carbon spewing drain on our resources and neighborhoods

But despite all these costs they impose, vacant buildings are currently allowed to churn through the speculative cycle, being sold at auction (except for the worst ones, which the county often won’t foreclose on in the first place) to the lowest bidder—people who far too often have no intention and/or ability to do anything with the property except milk it as shabby rental or sit on it in the hopes its value goes up.

This is what we call a market failure, and it calls for intervention. The city is making a good push right now to get a more accurate count of vacant buildings, and talk about ways to address the problem, but it needs more tools. One of the more powerful tools out there is called a land bank.

A land bank is a public entity—under New York law it is a separate nonprofit—whose purpose is to allow a community to make intentional, strategtic decisions about the use of its land. It has the power to clear title and back taxes to help make properties viable again, it can hold abandoned property tax free until the right use is determined, and it can acquire other property (not through eminent domain, just purchase) to assemble larger parcels.

Some of the things a land bank could implement might include a side-lot program, helping neighbors take over vacant lots next to their homes that are too small under current code to build on; programs to help neighbors or nonprofits rehab homes; urban agriculture and green space; or assembling property for economic development, community facilities, or needed infrastructure. We already have some city agencies that do some of the commercial side of this, but there’s clearly a remaining need.

Albany needs a land bank, and happily Chris Higgins (District 5) has introduced a bill to create one in the county legislature. Time is of the essence because the state enabling legislation only allows for 10 land banks. Five have already been created, and the next application round is coming soon.

But we shouldn’t let the time pressure keep us from being thoughtful about how we craft one. Like any tool, how well a land bank works will depend on how well is made, how well it is wielded, and who makes decisions about where and when it is used. In Philadelphia a large coalition is calling for a land bank that is transparent (details of all sales are public and easily accessible), accountable (community representation on the board from high-vacancy areas), and fair (a certain percentage of land directed to uses that keep it in community control and generate long-term benefit for current residents). I think this is a great model for how to think about what we want in Albany County, and while it’s being set up is the right time to ensure it is structured to be most effective.

There is a public meeting on Oct. 2, at the Albany Public Library John A. Howe Branch (105 Schuyler St.) at 6 PM being organized by groups including Affordable Housing Partnership, the Albany Community Land Trust, A Village Inc., Historic Albany Foundation, the South End Improvement Corporation, the South End Neighborhood Association, and the Vacant Lot Project to discuss the land bank and build momentum for it. We’ve been talking about vacant land for years—let’s get together and do something about it.