There's an empty house on an otherwise stable Jamestown street. The bushes are overgrown, the porch needs fixing, the gutters are full of old leaves. And the distress doesn't end there. It's spreading to neighbors who feel less and less compelled to invest in their homes when the worst house on the block is chipping away at their property's value and their confidence.
This scenario is increasingly common. Given up by their owners for a variety of reasons, these properties enter foreclosure processes that don't take the best interest of surrounding properties, the tax base, or wider community goals into account. In the case of tax-foreclosed properties, the system is designed to recoup unpaid taxes by selling to the highest bidder, regardless of the bidder's plans. It's a game of Russian roulette that neighborhoods all too frequently lose.
Recognition of this harm spurred an effort to bring a land bank to Chautauqua County, an entity designed to get vacant and abandoned properties into the hands of capable owners through negotiated sales, and to demolish properties with little or no market value. After widespread use in Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere, New York state enabled the creation of land banks in 2012. With widespread support from county and municipal officials, and leadership from the county's Department of Planning, Chautauqua County became a trailblazer in the battle on blight.
Now in its first full year of operation, the Chautauqua County Land Bank Corporation is ready to realize its potential. Having recently been awarded $1.5 million in competitive state funding (money from a settlement between New York state and several major banks), the Land Bank is preparing to undertake several activities that will make a difference in Jamestown and throughout the county.
What will the land bank do with these resources?
Demolition will be a major focus. In Jamestown alone, $500,000 will be paired with city dollars and credits from the County Landfill to demolish up to 40 homes over the next two years. Working with the city's Department of Development and the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation, the land bank will identify demolition opportunities with the greatest potential to stabilize surrounding property values and improve the appearance of key corridors. Some will be tax-foreclosed properties, others will be court-ordered teardowns, and others will be homes donated by owners who want to responsibly resolve situations that seem destined to end in abandonment.
Funding will also be used to establish the land bank as a repository for lender-owned properties, known as real estate-owned properties. This will allow the land bank to receive or purchase mortgage-foreclosed homes and find suitable buyers quickly, rather than letting them linger in bank-owned limbo for months or years.
Getting vacant lots into the hands of neighboring property owners for use as gardens, side yards, off-street parking, and home additions, will also be a key activity. In many cases, a neighbor keeps the grass mowed on a vacant lot and would like to own it, but doesn't know how to purchase the lot at auction or is unwilling to pay the $310 state fee to have the deed transferred. By making the purchase process simple and covering the state fee, the land bank will put these vacant lots back on the tax rolls, improve the likelihood of long-term maintenance, and boost the value of surrounding properties. The land bank has already accomplished much in 2013. Three distressed north county properties were sold to a reputable developer who is now investing close to $150,000 to renovate and sell them as owner-occupied residences. A house on Prendergast Avenue in Jamestown was recently sold to CHRIC, which will invest $60,000 and sell it to a qualified homebuyer. A property in rural Stockton was donated by Wells Fargo Bank with a cash contribution. And six vacant lots were transferred to neighboring property owners, with the land bank paying the closing costs. The land bank is currently marketing six properties that were foreclosed by the County, and hopes to have them sold within the next few months to responsible owners.
This experiment in blight alleviation and neighborhood stabilization is just beginning, and any future success depends on strong partnerships with private developers, municipalities, housing agencies, neighborhood organizations, and the wider public. To learn more about the land bank and ways to assist and provide your input, visit planningchautauqua.com/ and find the land bank under the listing of advisory boards.
Renaissance Reflections is a biweekly feature with news from the front lines of Jamestown's revitalization.