Over 450 attendees convened in Detroit earlier this month for the Center for Community Progress 2011 Land Bank Conference. This sixth annual conference addressing the topic of public land banks was the first to take on a national flavor, with representation from 18 states.

Highlights of this year’s conference included keynote speeches by Carol Coletta, president of Coletta & Company, and David Rusk, author and urban strategist. Coletta, former president of CEOs for Cities, challenged participants to think more creatively about how land banks can connect to the larger mission of “placemaking.” She stressed the power that land banks can have in reshaping communities.

David Rusk focused his presentation on the need for communities to act as a region rather than “small boxes.” When creating a land bank, Rusk suggested that communities develop the authority around the broadest geographic area in order to create a more viable, sustainable program.

Successful land bank programs rely on four critical elements, according to Dan Kildee, Co-founder and President of the Center for Community Progress:

  • A connection to the tax foreclosure process in the community as an alternative to the auction process;
  • Formed around the largest, most diverse market possible – typically at the county or regional level;
  • Policy-focused decisions that result in transparent, accessible documentation; and
  • A commitment to be engaged with the community, and to encourage ongoing interaction with residents.

It is often difficult to earn the trust of residents in a distressed community, says Kildee. “These residents are often suspicious of government’s role in managing blight.”

“Over time, however, land bank authorities can earn the trust of community members. Community participation tends to increase when residents get the sense that they are truly being heard.”

Kildee was instrumental in creating the Genesee County Land Bank, which has become a model for other programs in Michigan and across the country. “We took the first step in launching the Genesee County Land Bank in 1999, by introducing legislation that reformed the county’s obsolete foreclosure system,” he says. This change established a direct connection between foreclosed properties and the Lank Bank, which became the primary mechanism for managing and repurposing thousands of properties.

“Next, we created a self-financing mechanism, partly rooted in connection with a re-engineered process of tax liens whereby the County Treasurer’s Office issues short-term bonds to fund unpaid taxes, then collects the taxes to repay the bonds, effectively acting as a benevolent tax lien purchaser. In doing so, vacant, abandoned properties no longer posed an investment opportunity for speculative investors, and the County was able to earn a return on its investment that could be distributed right back into rebuilding its tax base.”

In 2002, the first properties came through the pilot Land Bank program in Flint, which led to the enactment of legislation authorizing land banks in Michigan in 2004. There are currently 37 legislatively authorized public land banks in Michigan, comprising almost half of the land banks in the entire U.S.

Land bank legislation was recently approved in the New York State Senate, and is on its way to Governor Cuomo’s desk to be signed into law. Pennsylvania also recently reintroduced land bank legislation for consideration. Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky and Georgia all have specific legislation authorizing public land banks, and about a dozen other states have development authority statutes or similar mechanisms that can act as a land bank to some degree.

The Center for Community Progress was established in 2010. Its mission is to create vibrant communities through the reuse of vacant property in America’s cities and towns. The 2012 Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference is scheduled for June 20-22, 2012 in New Orleans.