Help Detroit Land Bank keep the progress going (Detroit Free Press)

The Detroit City Council recently approved the transfer of more than 37,000 city-owned residential properties to the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA). This represents a major milestone in creating the strong infrastructure needed to transform the tens of thousands of vacant properties in the city.

Previously, ownership and management of city property had been spread out across as many as 12 entities. This confusing morass of ownership was a major roadblock for people trying to reuse properties — from the resident trying to plant a garden, to the developer trying to rehab blighted houses. In order to improve this, the Detroit Future City (DFC) framework called for the majority of public land to be brought under one roof, at the DLBA.

Land banks are public entities focused on stabilizing and improving communities by putting problem properties (often vacant, blighted, unmarketable, or foreclosed) back into productive use. They can employ tools such as the ability to acquire properties at low or no cost, expedited title clearance, and discounted property sales — an especially important tool in Detroit, where opportunities for traditional financing can be limited.

Despite the logistically and politically daunting task of negotiating the transfer of tens of thousands of properties from multiple city, county and state entities to the land bank, now, only two years after it was recommended in the DFC framework, DLBA will control the majority of publicly owned land in the city.

To support the DLBA’s property management, the City Council also approved an allocation of $11.8 million. By itself, that is a significant amount of money. But when spread out across all of the properties that the DLBA is about to receive, in addition to the properties it currently manages, it amounts to around $140 per property. Given ongoing maintenance needs — such as mowing, garbage clearance, boarding, let alone the costs to improve the properties through rehabilitation, demolition, or replanting — the DLBA’s expenses far exceed a couple hundred dollars.

Understanding this gap, DLBA has sought additional governmental and private funding with some success. However, it still does not have a dedicated and predictable funding source that meets the scale of its challenges. This is a perennial issue not just for the DLBA, but for land banks throughout the state.

We must explore new opportunities for predictable, dedicated funding for land banks that will enable them to implement bold, longer-term strategies, rather than having to operate with insufficient, unpredictable funding. In Ohio, land banks receive an annual allocation of fees generated from the collection of delinquent property taxes. For the Cuyahoga Land Bank, which manages 1,200 properties, this amounts to around $7 million a year.

The Ohio funding model may not be the solution for Michigan land banks, but represents the type of structural change needed for land banks throughout the state.

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