Stressed by the catastrophic mortgage foreclosure crisis and the long-run decline of older, industrial regions, communities around the country are becoming increasingly burdened with vacant and abandoned properties. In order to alleviate the pressures on national prosperity caused by these derelict properties, the federal government needs to advance policies that support regional and local land banking for the 21st century.
Land banking is the process or policy by which local governments acquire surplus properties and convert them to productive use or hold them for long term strategic public purposes. By turning vacant and abandoned properties into community assets such as affordable housing, land banking fosters greater metropolitan prosperity and strengthens broader national economic well-being.
During the mortgage crisis of the past two years, the nation has seen the number of foreclosures double, and almost 600,000 vacant, for-sale homes added to weak real estate markets. In older industrial regions, chronic economic and population losses have also led to vacancies and abandonment. When left unaddressed, these problem properties impose severe costs on neighborhoods, including reduced property values and tax revenues, increased arson and crime, and greater demands for police surveillance and response. Eight cities in Ohio, for example, were forced to bear $15 million in direct annual costs and over $49 million in cumulative lost property tax revenues due to the abandonment of approximately 25,000 properties. Such negative consequences drain community resources and prevent cities and towns—and the nation—from fully realizing productive, inclusive, and sustainable growth.
Limitations of Existing Federal Policy
The Emergency Assistance Act in the Home and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 is the first to express recognition of land banking in federal legislation, but it has several weaknesses. The act lacks clarity regarding the scope and target for the allocated funding which may hinder effective policy implementation in the short term. Moreover, as an emergency response to the immediate mortgage crisis, it does not sufficiently address the concerns of land banking in the long run. In particular, the act’s $3.92 billion does not come close to meeting the costs associated with the two million foreclosures projected by the end of 2008 and the local revenues lost from vacant and abandoned properties.
A New Federal Approach
Federal policy needs to support effective and efficient land banking. In the short term, the federal government should deploy the Emergency Assistance Act with local and regional flexibility for determining funding priorities. Over the long term, the federal government should implement a new, comprehensive federal land banking program that would:
- Capitalize local and regional land banking by providing sufficient funding to support the several million properties in the process of foreclosure or those that are already vacant and abandoned
- Incentivize local and state code and tax reform to ensure that land banking is not hampered by outdated rules and procedures
- Advance regionalism by encouraging new inter-jurisdictional entities to align the scale of land banking authorities with the scale of metropolitan land issues
“We’re at a stage of growth in our country and around the world where cities are the vanguard of problem solving,” said Katz. “The federal government, when it functions, is a health insurance company with an army.”
“The 21st century has revalued these small geographies. That’s what the 21st century demands,” Katz said, noting that these days, “[w]e aren’t innovating in isolated business parks” in the suburbs.