Land bank would establish path toward rehabbing abandoned properties
By Tim Rowland
Essex County supervisors on Monday petitioned the state to allow it to create a land bank, designed to resurrect dilapidated housing that would be rehabbed and sold to people of modest means.
The land bank could also buy housing that was too far gone for repair, demolish it and oversee construction of something new. Both avenues would accomplish the twin goals of eliminating blighted properties, while helping provide affordable housing to communities sorely in need of it.
“This helps a vulnerable population that needs a leg up,” said town of Essex Supervisor Ken Hughes, a member of a housing committee that has been studying the issue. “We called land banks around the state, and the more the task force looked, the more attractive it became.”
The land bank will focus on property Essex County already owns by way of foreclosure for unpaid taxes. These properties are typically auctioned once a year, but it’s not uncommon for buyers to learn after the fact that, in terms of repairs, they have bitten off more than they can chew, and the properties wind up right back in foreclosure.
With input from supervisors and the Housing Assistance Program of Essex County, the land bank, if approved by the state, would be operated by PRIDE of Ticonderoga, which brings to the table 40 years of grant-writing and housing rehabilitation experience. Despite the name, the entirety of Essex County falls under the nonprofit’s coverage as well.
“We’re in the business of keeping houses affordable, so this wasn’t a big leap for us,” said PRIDE Executive Director Nicole Justice Green.
Along with overseeing rehab, PRIDE will counsel homebuyers on the responsibilities of homeownership and find programs that can help prospective homeowners with closing costs, down payments or other measures that can get them over a financial hump and into a home loan.
Although state approval of the land bank is not expected for several months, Essex County — as something of a dry run — is going ahead with the rehabilitation of a blighted house on Springfield Road in the Town of Jay, a project that will be paid for out of federal Covid-relief funds. The cost to refurbish it is estimated at $180,000, Hughes said.
Despite some significant problems, including a failed septic system that was leaking into the road, Green said the home is relatively solid and has not outlived its useful life.
A second house, this one in North Elba, has been identified as being a good candidate for land-bank repairs, and may become the first to actually be saved under the auspices of the new land bank.
For fixing up property, land banks have several advantages over county governments. Nonprofits are not bound by government procurement, wage and other mandates that can drive up the cost. Still, if the home is to be affordable, the selling price typically would not cover the land bank’s rehabilitation costs. The gap is closed by financial incentives land banks are privy to, as well as other programs open to nonprofits. Green said PRIDE potentially has more than a dozen funding options applicable to housing rehab.
Because of this, Hughes said county taxpayers would not be paying for affordable housing, an important point among supervisors.
The state has a finite number of open land-bank slots and is nearing capacity. They are gaining currency in the North Country, where a Franklin County land bank was recently approved.
Clinton County was in the process of establishing a land bank when Covid hit, said County Treasurer Kimberly Davis.
Davis said the Clinton County model gives towns the option of opting in or out, and includes a dedicated revenue stream drawn from a small fraction of the town’s sales tax revenue and proceeds from the county’s tax auction. She said work toward establishment of the land bank has resumed this year.