Tools for revitalizing communities are core of Center’s work

Rethinking and reusing existing urban assets, rather than “carving up yet another farm field for development” are definitive steps to creating strong, vibrant and sustainable cities and regions, says Dan Kildee, co-founder of the Center for Community Progress.

The Center for Community Progress was founded in January 2010 by Dan Kildee, former county treasurer in Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s home community of Genesee County, Michigan, along with: Frank Alexander, an Emory University law professor; Amy Hovey, who helped launch the Genesee County Land Bank and has served as an independent consultant with a background in real estate development; and Jennifer Leonard, former director of the National Vacant Properties Campaign. [The campaign’s work has since been undertaken by the Center.] Initial support came in the form of a combined $1 million in grants from the Mott and Ford foundations. Mott support for the Center now totals $2 million. The Center is based in Flint and has a policy office in Washington, DC.

Since launching the organization little more than a year ago, Kildee and his colleagues at the Center have taken that message on the road, working with dozens of cities around the country — including Mott’s hometown of Flint, Michigan — as well as federal, state and local officials and nonprofits.

“The Center is more than a ‘think tank,’ but rather a ‘think-and-do’ tank,” says Kildee. “We’re getting in there and helping people create the public systems and policies that encourage, rather than hinder, investments in their local communities.”

That hands-on approach includes helping cities identify and launch strategies for responding to chronic property abandonment and stabilizing at-risk neighborhoods, and transforming vacant lots into affordable housing, new business ventures and open green spaces. The Center also is raising awareness of issues related to urban land-use reform through research, conferences and dissemination of reports and other publications.

Helping Atlanta update its land bank model

Among those working with the Center on local land use reform is the Fulton County/City of Atlanta Land Bank Authority.

Christopher Norman is executive director of the Atlanta program, one of the first land banks in the country.*

He notes that while the organization and its scope have evolved significantly over the years, the 1991 state legislation that provided for its creation has left the program “constrained in a ‘Land Bank 1.0’ platform, while newer programs are operating in a ‘3.0’ version. We need some of the functionality of that new model.”

To that end, the Center is helping Norman and other local officials call for public policies and develop financing tools that will allow the land bank to obtain foreclosed properties before they can be bought by land speculators, who Kildee says “can significantly undermine a community’s ability to realize its land-use vision.” Those tools also will allow the Atlanta program to actively engage in the clearing, management and development of abandoned properties.

“The Center has been ‘mission critical’ to this work,” notes Norman. “Without their ability to galvanize people, to guide and coordinate us on these issues and share their insights from other programs, we could not have positioned ourselves to do this next generation of activity.”

Opening eyes, minds to the value of urban land

In Atlanta and other communities, the Center’s work starts with engaging area leaders and residents in identifying a vision for local land use and related economic development. Next, staff helps local officials assess how existing property tax and foreclosure systems and code-enforcement policies shape the community’s ability to realize that vision.

An outdoor construction site shows heave equipment in a lot filled with debris.
Helping cities develop the tools for reusing and revitalizing vacant and abandoned properties is a key focus of the Center for Community Progress.

Armed with that information, the Center helps the community explore strategies for re-engineering those local systems and regaining control of abandoned and forgotten properties. This often includes developing new land-use policies, such as those that provide for the creation of a land bank.

Woven throughout that work, says Kildee, is helping locals “adopt a new way of thinking about land use and its economic impacts.”

“Many communities deal with vacant and abandoned properties as if they’re a nuisance, a source of crime and blight, a problem to be regulated and enforced,” he said.

“We’re trying to open the eyes of people. To help them think about urban land as an opportunity, a potential investment that has real value and that can be converted into an asset. Once they embrace that idea and exercise the leadership to see it through, that’s when you start to see things happen.”

It was that same approach that helped Kildee to pioneer a land-banking strategy in Mott’s home state of Michigan. The Genesee County Land Bank, a longtime Foundation grantee, was launched in 2002 and has since served as a model for many communities — including Syracuse, New York — looking for ways to address vacant and foreclosed properties.

Defining a land-use agenda in Syracuse, New York

The success of the Genesee County program caught the attention of the Syracuse-based CenterState Corporation for Enterprise Opportunity, which began working with Kildee in 2008. Its goal since has been the development and passage of state legislation providing for the creation of land banks in New York.

Rob Simpson, the organization’s president and CEO, believes “the prospects for that legislation in 2011 are good.” He expects the Center will work with local partners in developing the state’s first land bank.

In the meantime, Kildee and his staff are helping CenterState and the City of Syracuse develop interim tools, such as housing code enforcement strategies, for reclaiming delinquent properties and converting them into community assets.

“Our work with the Center has helped us define a focused urban land-use agenda and informed our strategies in advancing it,” said Simpson. “Our ongoing efforts related to land banking, historic preservation, tax increment financing and government modernization have been directly impacted by the skills and insights of Frank, Dan and the rest of their staff.”

Why land-use policies matter

Lou Glazer, president of the Mott-funded Michigan Future, Inc., says that such examples illustrate the Center’s capacity for helping people to understand and embrace the connections between effective land-use policy and economic stability.

We’re trying to open the eyes of people. To help them think about urban land as an opportunity, a potential investment that has real value and that can be converted into an asset.” Dan Kildee

“If regions are to survive, then the cities within them have to thrive. We have to rethink our whole approach to urban communities, to the role they’re going to play in transitioning the country into the new economy,” he said.

“Having an organization like the Center, which knows what that transition is all about and how cities can go about doing it, is enormously valuable.”

* Center co-founder, Frank Alexander, played a key role in drafting Georgia’s 1991 legislation that paved the way for the 1993 launch of the Atlanta land bank program. Land banks are public entities created to take ownership of tax foreclosed and abandoned properties; hold and manage them for future use; and, ultimately, return them to the tax rolls.