An excess of vacant and abandoned property — once exclusively a problem in older, industrial cities — now threatens many otherwise strong-market cities as the national foreclosure crisis continues to overwhelm communities.
“It’s a pressing issue across the country. Huge new inventories of abandoned properties are forcing municipalities to change the systems designed to deal with tax foreclosures,” said Frank Alexander, an Emory law professor who is one of four founding partners of the Center for Community Progress. The center, launched in January with a combined $1 million in grants from the Charles Stewart Mott and Ford foundations, is designed to serve as a resource for federal, state and local officials and nonprofit agencies that are working to help cities eliminate the blight associated with vacant, abandoned and underutilized properties. Other founding partners include Dan Kildee, former treasurer for Genesee County, Michigan; Jennifer Leonard, former director of the National Vacant Properties Campaign; and Amy Hovey, an independent consultant with a background in real estate development.
Services offered through the center are based on more than a decade of work creating a land-banking mechanism to help Flint and Genesee County, Michigan, deal with the large inventory of foreclosed properties that became the government’s responsibility following an overhaul of Michigan’s tax foreclosure legislation in 1999. Increasing interest in land banks — a public authority that can efficiently acquire, hold, manage and develop tax-foreclosed properties with the long-term interest of the community in mind — prompted the creation of the new center, a merger of the National Vacant Properties Campaign and the Genesee Institute. Since 1993, the Mott Foundation has provided $11.4 million to support state policy initiatives that paved the way for the creation of the Michigan land bank model.
The center’s staff of nine will operate out of two offices, one in Flint and another in Washington, D.C.
The Flint office will provide “real life application” of the research and policy work developed through the Washington office, said Kildee, noting that the Flint model — a land bank with a tax foreclosure system connected to it — remains the premier model for land systems reform. The model, which permits county treasurers to acquire, renovate and sell properties by expediting title clearance on tax-reverted properties, enables communities to deal with abandoned property more strategically.
The center’s Washington-based policy work will focus on property tax foreclosure reform, the use of land banks and land-banking, and modification of local vacant property registration ordinances and code enforcement procedures in states across the U.S., said Alexander. The East Coast office also will be responsible for connecting this work — and the technical assistance and capacity-building services available through the Flint office — to national policymakers and allied organizations around the country.
“The Michigan model helped raise a number of issues that are now attracting national attention from HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and other government agencies,” said Kildee, noting that until the foreclosure crisis, cities with fairly stable markets never expected to need this type of policy approach.
“Being based in Flint, the center has credibility wherever we go. Flint’s difficulties and accomplishments are proof point that redevelopment of the built environment can happen in the worst economic crisis in decades, if the tools and political will are present.”
For many states and municipalities struggling with high vacancy and foreclosure rates, existing laws and legal structures are another significant barrier to progress, said Alexander.
“For a variety of reasons, information about government-owned and tax-delinquent properties tends to be bracketed in isolated departments — city and county attorneys, tax collectors, community development corporations and local government redevelopment agencies. Very little information tends to cross the boundaries of these groups to allow common practices and solutions to serve common problems and opportunities.
“We’ve unwittingly locked people and property into isolation.”
The biggest disconnect for most communities, according to Kildee, is that tax collecting mechanisms are distinct from the management and repurposing of the land that becomes available through the process.
“For a lot of local municipalities, the immediate cash value of vacant properties is of higher priority than the interests of neighborhoods. It’s very short-term thinking — like a farmer who sells his seed corn,” he continued.
“The ‘ah-ha’ moment for most cities is when we are able to demonstrate how efficient tax collecting can stabilize a community, how paying the same attention to low-value properties as those with high value, they are able to grow a more stable tax base.”
And that, says Alexander, is the ultimate goal of land revitalization — getting people back into properties where appropriate and eliminating the harmful effects of properties in areas where there is no demand.
“Our work helping cities re-pattern and re-image their physical footprint — the ‘shrinking city’ concept — has attracted a lot of attention,” said Kildee.
“Youngstown, Ohio, is shaping up to be another great model for us,” he continued. “Youngstown has community consensus around the idea of becoming smaller and better, and the political leadership to make that happen. What they need is control of the city’s land mass — and we’re helping them with that.”
Across the country, attitudes toward land are in the process of transforming, according to Alexander and Kildee. And more and more communities are saying that the status quo is not acceptable.
“Over the last decade, there’s been a growing sensitivity toward the environmental degradation that occurs with uncontrolled development and the costs that will be borne by future generations,” said Alexander. “Now left to deal with the litter of abandoned properties, communities also are increasingly concerned about the ease with which people can walk away from land.
“That’s why it’s important to change the systems that lead to abandonment and give communities the laws and the technical capacity that will give them the opportunity to thrive.”
And that is how the Center for Community Progress will manifest its value as an agency, says Kildee.
“There’s a relationship between people and land that gives a unique character to every city. It’s our mission to get the public systems and regulations — to get all the machinery of state and local government — to match the stated values of all kinds of different communities.”