What does a typical land bank program look like?

While all land banks exist to serve the same primary purpose of acquiring problem properties and returning them to productive use, they are quite diverse in their structure and operations. As of 2014, there are approximately 120 land banks and land banking programs across the country, and they vary greatly in terms of the types of cities, regions, and economic conditions in which they operate, the size of their inventories, their staff capacity, their legal authorities, and their goals and programs. Despite this diversity, our experience has shown that successful land banks exhibit some similar characteristics:

Strategic links to the tax collection and foreclosure process

Tax delinquency is often the most significant common denominator among vacant and abandoned properties, which explains why nearly all land banks have established strategic links to the tax foreclosure process as a primary source of acquisitions. This is particularly true in communities where (a) a primary cause of vacancy and abandonment is an ineffective tax foreclosure process and (b) where there are statutory powers, intergovernmental agreements or policies in place for a land bank to acquire properties through the tax foreclosure process at little to no cost. Though auctions can generate positive outcomes for marketable properties, the speculative auction rarely if ever leads to positive outcomes for problem properties. Land banks can and should play a key role in acquiring and converting tax-foreclosed properties to productive use.

Operations scaled in response to local land use goals

Successful land banks have established acquisition and disposition strategies that directly support the implementation of local land use goals and meet community needs. Some land banks tackle massive inventories of extremely unsafe and abandoned properties as part of an urgent stabilization and public safety strategy, while others operate selectively with extreme deliberation. Regardless of the scale of operations, land banks should always make decisions based on a strong understanding of community priorities and goals, and guided by neighborhood, local and regional revitalization plans.

Policy-driven, transparent, and publicly accountable transactions

The acquisition and disposition of properties – especially those that have long been harmful eyesores – is an important and sensitive endeavor. Successful land banks have gone to great lengths to build and maintain trust with the public through complete transparency in the establishment of priorities, policies, and procedures that govern all actions. Land banks should make sure these ground rules and policies are established prior to any transactions, and annually revisited with public input to maintain a high standard of transparency and accountability. Moreover, land banks should strive to create websites that offer members of the public full access to accurate, up-to-date information pertaining to all land bank operations, programs, policies, and activities, including sales listings and past transactions.

Engagement with residents and other community stakeholders

There is no substitute for engaged community stakeholders who understand a community’s history and goals — and whose lives are most directly impacted by a land bank’s work. Successful land banks have found creative and consistent ways to inform, engage, and empower these active residents to help prioritize land bank interventions and develop long-term solutions. Whether establishing a community advisory board or regularly hosting neighborhood meetings, land banks should explore and implement practices that affirm a strong commitment to inclusiveness, engagement, and empowerment.

Alignment with other local or regional tools and community programs

Because a land bank is a tool to support locally developed land use goals, and not a goal in and of itself, it is important to coordinate with other blight prevention tools and programs. Successful land banks have helped facilitate and work within diverse collaborations across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors that share similar economic and community development goals. We can’t stress enough that, in order to truly be effective, land bank activities must complement existing blight prevention efforts, including effective tax enforcement, strategic code enforcement, neighborhood investments, and community-based planning.

A land bank is not a panacea for all problems associated with blight, or even a necessary entity in many cities, but in the right environment and with the right legal structure, a land bank can be a key tool for returning vacant and problem property to productive use.