News of the foreclosure and sub-prime lending crisis has become a near daily event. Whether it's Countrywide or E-trade, we're growing accustomed to hearing of another bank suffering multi-billion dollar losses. Those losses are one part of the landscape. The other part is the foreclosed and in many cases, abandoned homes, an estimated seven thousand in Cuyahoga County, for instance. What do you do with them? Cuyahoga County officials have an idea and if it happens, it would go statewide--it's called a land bank--and it's an idea that's already working in Flint, Michigan. It was the topic of Tuesday's Sound of Ideas. Ideastream Dan Moulthrop has our story.
To understand why a land bank was necessary in Flint, you need to know a little history.
Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee explains,"We had about 79-thousand GM jobs back in the sixties and early seventies. Just about everybody in Flint worked for General Motors, and obviously things changed fairly dramatically... What happened to Flint was we lost about 40 percent of our population in the last three decades, and with that level of abandonment in an already weakened economic market and a weakened real estate market, we were stuck with literally thousands of abandoned properties"
And in the 1990s, the law required the county to auction off those properties. Often their were leins on these properties for unpaid taxes. The county sold those leins in separate sales. Tax collectors continued to chase down the delinquent taxpayers and once they forced payment, investors who had bought the leins made a tidy profit.
"What we found was that in achieving one goal of receiving tax collections in an efficient process of tax lien sales, we were actually failing to realize a more important goal," says Kildee, "and that was stabilizing our neighborhoods."
So while the tax revenue continued to roll in, the property values were falling and neighborhoods were falling apart because the houses were still sitting there, abandoned and falling apart. The solution involved a new set of priorities and a new role for County government. They made stable neighborhoods an explicit goal and changed state laws to do it. First, they gave county treasurers power to hold on to tax liens, so the county could make the money on interest that used to go to investors. Second, they created county wide land banks-- county authorities with the power to hold title to properties and make decisions on how best to use the land for the community.
So, the Genesee County land bank now owns over six thousand properties. What's the county doing with the land? Dan Kildee says the land bank sells properties only where the sale will improve the neighborhood in some tangible way. He says, "Where we see the results right now is for one neighborhood, one homeowner, one story at a time. For those five or six hundred used-to-be-an-abandoned-house-next-door, and now there's a green garden, there's five hundred really happy families with good stories to tell, and that's really how we choose to measure our results."
Those are results Cuyahoga County officials would like to see across Ohio. County treasurer Jim Rokakis is adamant about this being the solution He says, "I think it's not only possible, but it's necessary and if we don't do it, we can only guarantee we're going to continue this cycle of abandonment and victimization and despair."
To make it happen, Rokakis and others have to sell the idea to lawmakers in Columbus. Rokakis says he is optimistic. "Columbus," he says,"has been very cooperative with us. When we've gone down to ask for special legislation to do what needs to be done in Cleveland, they've given it to us, so I think we will have the political will."
But it's not clear when he'll need that political will. This change is only in the talking and studying stage now. No legislation has yet been introduced.