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MD law allows county to consider land banks for blight mitigation

LANDOVER – With Prince George’s County leaders focusing on development, a new state law may provide another tool to help them achieve success.

Last Thursday, representatives from several county agencies attended a workshop on land banks, which advocates believe can be a powerful tool for eliminating blight and restoring abandoned properties. The event, held at the Prince George’s Sports and Learning Complex in Landover, also drew government employees and non-profit leaders from Dorchester County, Baltimore City, and elsewhere. Legislation passed in the General Assembly early this year enables municipalities or counties to create a land bank.

A land bank is a public entity that is focused on converting vacant or abandoned properties from eyesores into assets for the community and the jurisdiction that would collect taxes for the property.

“It is a quasi-governmental entity that works to acquire blighted properties and prepare them back for productive use,” said Odette Ramos, executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland. “It’s just a sort of cleaner way to do it. It’s also in some cases more efficient.”

Ramos’s organization sponsored the workshop, which was part of their larger “Community Development Week” event. The goal of the awareness week was to highlight the innovative development programs in use across the state.

“Community Development Week is actually 10 days of activities this year where we highlight all kinds of community development projects and their impact in communities,” she said. “We’ve been doing anything from, yesterday we were at a dedication of a house from Habitat (for Humanity) to we did a workshop on community land trusts.”

Land banks are one such community development tool utilized in other states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

Peter Dolkart, regional community development manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (Va.), said, “We share ideas that work. And what we know from experience with our sister banks in Cleveland and Detroit and around the country, that land banking has worked very effectively in other jurisdictions.”

Kim Graziani, vice president and director of national technical assistance for the Center for Community Progress, said more than 170 land banks exist across the country, with around 70 percent of them springing up after the housing bubble burst in 2008, leading to the Great Recession. She said, while the specific ways that land banks function differs from state to state, the goal of any land bank is the same: “the properties that are causing harm to the adjacent residents, to the local government, to the elected officials and to everyone in between- it is solely focused on taking those liabilities and turning them into assets.”

Prince George’s County Del. Marvin Holmes (D-23) was the sponsor of Maryland’s land bank bill. He said he drew ideas from contacts in the Cleveland area, where land banks are showing some success with addressing vacant, deteriorating properties, as well as from a report commissioned by the Maryland Municipal League, Maryland Association of Counties, and the Community Development Network demonstrating their potential value in this state.

“During those summer studies, we crafted legislation and got all the stakeholders together so that by the time January got here, we had all the kinks ironed out, everyone was on board,” Holmes said. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do with these vacant, abandoned properties, ‘zombie properties’ is what some people call them. Getting these properties back into useful hands, families’ hands, getting the boards off the properties, getting them put back into the market, is exactly what we need to be doing in Prince George’s County and the state of Maryland.”

Maryland’s law allows a county or municipality, or two or more acting together, to create a land bank authority. The land bank is able to take ownership of property that has tax or water and sewer liens on it as an alternative to the traditional tax sale system. Then, if the property is determined to be vacant or blighted, the taxing authority is authorized to forgive the tax liens, enabling the land bank to sell or otherwise transfer that property to a new owner.

Land banks around the country have used the properties they own for various purposes, from renting to selling at lower-than-market rates to provide affordable housing to rehabbing the property for development, to creating community gardens, and in other ways.

“The beauty of land banking is that it's flexible and nimble,” Graziani said. “A land bank in Prince George’s County and in Dorchester County, if it’s the same, I’d question it. There are different needs, there are different goals, and a land bank should be responsive to those local goals.”

While different jurisdictions run their land banks in different ways, Graziani said there are some common components that go into making them successful. The first is a dedicated funding stream, to ensure the land bank has the resources it needs, including staffing. Another is that is makes a sincere effort to reach out to the communities in which it works.

“People know when they come to a meeting whether it’s for the show of it or whether people are actually listening,” she said. “I guess I would say, either do it authentically or don’t do it at all. Because land banks are public entities, there is a commitment to engage.”

In addition to providing information about land banks and answers to attendees’ questions, the workshop also included a hands-on component for leaders of county agencies who showed interest in potentially starting a land bank.

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