By Tim Rowland
The Empire State Development Board of Directors approved Essex County’s land-bank application Monday, saying the county has made a “strong case” for success.
“I’m incredibly optimistic for the future,” said Town of Essex Supervisor Ken Hughes. “I love that we’re not just talking about it anymore, we’re actively executing a plan.”
County supervisors have been studying the issue of affordable housing since early in the pandemic, and land banks — originally pitched by community advocacy group AdkAction — have been one of the avenues of exploration.
Hughes said 26 other jurisdictions in the state have proven track records with land banks, which address the twin issues of affordable housing and community blight. “For lack of a better word, it seemed like a bit of a silver bullet,” Hughes said.
Essex County hopes to rehabilitate selected houses that it owns due to nonpayment of taxes, and sell them to people who cannot afford housing on the open market. The land bank will be administered by PRIDE of Ticonderoga, with support from the Housing Assistance Program of Essex County.
PRIDE, a nonprofit community development group, covers all of Essex County, and has experience working with contractors to rehabilitate and maintain homes.
First up for the land bank will be a run-down house in the hamlet of Upper Jay that supervisors have identified as needing significant work, but still in good enough shape structurally to be worth fixing up.
Nicole Justice Green, executive director of PRIDE, said it will cost between $120,000 and $140,000 to rehab the house, costs that would be recouped when it is sold. Supervisors have provided $300,000 in seed money for the land bank project, money that came from a pool of COVID relief funding.
Green said there are also grants for rehabilitation, some specifically targeted to land-banks. She said PRIDE also hopes to receive grant funding for operational expenses, including staff time and website maintenance.
Each year, dozens of properties fall into county ownership for back taxes, and they are typically auctioned off once a year.
That’s been problematic because buyers frequently underestimate the cost of needed repairs and walk away, putting the property right back on the foreclosure roll.
Green said she hopes to pull as many as five properties a year from the foreclosure list, pending approval of the municipalities they are in, and the Board of Supervisors.
Income eligibility to purchase these homes varies, depending on the type of grant used for rehab and individual finances. For example, a federal Community Development Block Grant defines affordable housing at 80% of Area Median Income, or about $43,000 for one person or $62,000 for a family of four.
But there are other financial considerations as well that can work to the favor of people who want to be considered. “They will look up 80% of AMI and think they don’t qualify, when in fact they do,” Green said. “It’s really going to be an individualized approach.”
Some housing is expected to be available for higher incomes as well, that would fit the budgets of people working in, for example, health care and local government — groups that earn too much to qualify for assistance, but not enough to afford market-rate housing.
Green said affiliated groups will publicize available housing through social media and the website, https://essexcountylandbank.org.