Hey, Albany, We Have a Land Bank

Albany has a lot of abandoned buildings and vacant lots, as most of us know. They can be an incredible drag on neighborhoods, inviting crime and disinvestment, and they represent a tremendous waste of potential, especially in neighborhoods that desperately lack many things, from community facilities to commercial. Many of them are locked in a horrible speculative cycle, bought by people looking to make a quick buck that either do not care about the neighborhoods or are unable to care for them, or often both.

Land banks are a tool for taking vacant or foreclosed upon land out of the speculative cycle and allowing a community to be more intentional about its uses. They are usually an independent entity that is given some powers over title issues and liens and the ability to intercept properties otherwise headed down a long tax foreclosure and abandonment road.

The road to the Albany County land bank was a little rocky, but for now the important part is that we do in fact now have our own, as of May. So what might citizens of Albany County want to know about this entity, now that it’s here?

Governance: It’s governed by board of nine members, appointed by the county. There is also a 24-member community advisory committee, on which I am serving (though this column is my own summary of things, not an official one). The committee’s purpose is to advise land bank staff and board on their policies and activities, and help keep residents informed. The community advisory committee launched in September, and the members were randomly assigned one to three year terms, so there will be opportunities for others to join it next year.

Final decisions will always be the board’s, but the advisory committee is taking a strong lead in crafting policy, and various board members have asserted that they see the CAC as peers in the process. The board meets on third Tuesdays at 200 Henry Johnson Blvd. at 5:30 PM. Meetings are open to the public.

The land bank’s executive director is Kathleen Bronson, formerly principal planner for the city of Albany.

Scope: The land bank is county wide, and was formed by the county legislature, but appropriately (in my opinion) it has chosen to start off focusing on the areas of the county that have the most abandoned properties—the South End, Arbor Hill/Sheridan Hollow and West Hill/West End neighborhoods of Albany. Within those neighborhoods, targeted blocks/clusters of properties are going to be selected for an even closer focus, to ensure that the land bank’s resources can have a dramatic effect.

Resources: What finally brought the land bank into being was the availability of some money that the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman set aside from the mortgage settlement specifically for land banks. So it is no surprise that the land bank’s first project, even before it really had its staff and policies together, was to apply for that money. The specific and ambitious proposal concerned more than 80 properties that were held out of the last county auction, and was funded to the tune of $2.88 million, one of the largest awards in the state. Albany County had already kicked in $1 million over two years, and the city $500,000. That initial list of properties is being finalized and will be made public soon.

Now the land bank is turning to setting up its policies around what properties to acquire going forward, and how to dispose of them. Some of this is minutiae, if important—the details of how to make a program to give side lots to adjacent homeowners, for example. Some of this is big picture values—what are the goals that the land bank is trying to further? How do we balance prioritizing certain desired uses with prioritizing getting properties turned around promptly? How do we balance flexibility with the desire to be intentional and strategic?

The land bank’s leaders have placed a strong premium on kicking into gear and showing results quickly, so we will likely see the first round of these policies in place by the end of the year. The community advisory committee is using the results of recent planning processes and a door-to-door survey by Councilman Mark Robinson (Ward 5) to guide its thinking on crafting draft policies, but this is also the time to weigh in directly if you want to express your thoughts about how vacant property is affecting your neighborhood, and what should or shouldn’t happen with it.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Nov. 6, 2014. For more up-to-date info see Albany County Land Bank Corporation.)

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