Former County Treasurer Jim Rokakis works to create land banks (Freshwater Cleveland)

Former County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, who prophesied Ohio’s foreclosure crisis as early as 2000 and was a prime mover behind Ohio’s land banking law and the Cuyahoga Land Bank, is now working with the newly formed Thriving Communities Institute to form land banks throughout Ohio.

The Thriving Communities Institute was formed last year by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, a nonprofit that works to preserve undeveloped land in Northeast Ohio, as a way to spread the successful land banking movement. It has since grown rapidly, and Rokakis now finds himself traveling throughout Ohio to provide technical assistance and help counties set up land banks.

Since the Cuyahoga Land Bank was formed, Rokakis says, it has effectively shut down the supply of low value properties to investors in the county, secured agreements with lenders to acquire distressed properties, and facilitated over 1,000 demolitions of eyesore properties throughout Cleveland.

Now other counties in Ohio are following Cuyahoga County’s lead. “There’s a land bank in Montgomery County now, Franklin is close and we’ve just been hired by Hamilton County,” says Rokakis, stressing that vacant properties are not just an urban issue. “Land banks work in urban, rural and suburban settings.”

The gradually declining numbers of foreclosures are misleading, Rokakis says, because they don’t reflect the number of delinquent homeowners or the fact that banks are frequently walking away from properties without taking title. To address these ongoing problems, cities and counties need more tools and money for acquisition and redevelopment. “If we don’t take the eyesores and turn them into things of beauty, the problem will only get worse,” he says. “This isn’t just about demolition, it’s also about positioning properties for redevelopment.”

The long-term solution? Instead of another bank bailout, relief for underwater homeowners and communities saddled with foreclosures is needed, he says. Rokakis is now working with a group of state and federal legislators to propose a federal tax credit that would create a pool of money for property redevelopment.

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