These tumultuous economic times have paved the path for a new brand of banking in Washtenaw County — one free of deposit slips and PINs. Say hello to the Land Bank. A surge of foreclosures caused by the recession has burdened local communities with unused properties that are inefficient and diminish the value of nearby properties. The freshly-formed Washtenaw County Land Bank Authority is sure to help with this problem. To do that, the Land Bank should concentrate on providing affordable housing for county residents and encourage important environmentally friendly initiatives.
The Washtenaw County Land Bank was established on July 8, just in time to meet the deadline to receive $300,000 in federal stimulus funds to help with start-up costs. A specific business plan has yet to be generated, but the Washtenaw Land Bank will probably follow a fairly standard model. Generally, after acquiring foreclosed properties, land banks collaborate with local officials to determine their best use on a case-by-case basis. This could mean renovation, demolition, beautification or other projects. Properties are then sold to private owners who agree to develop the land along the land bank’s suggestion.
The Washtenaw Lank Bank is expected to be modeled after the Genesee County Land Bank, which has earned the 2007 Harvard University/Fannie Mae Foundation Innovations in American Government Award for Affordable Housing. The overall impact of the Genesee Land Bank has been overwhelmingly positive — Genesee has produced a cost-conscious program that softened the blow of the Flint area housing crisis. There is no reason why Washtenaw County can’t replicate this success.
But for the Lank Bank to work here, officials will have to tailor its objectives to Washtenaw County’s needs and values. For example, here in Ann Arbor, students and residents alike have long been in need of more affordable rental units. Affordable housing located centrally in downtown Ann Arbor helps combat socioeconomic stratification in the city. It allows people of various means to live in close proximity, rather than forcing the less fortunate to live further from the city proper and commute. And if the Land Bank takes initiative to encourage the development of this kind of affordable housing, the city wouldn’t have to foot the bill.
Local residents and especially students have also expressed their enthusiasm for more environmentally friendly initiatives. The Land Bank could support this cause by encouraging private owners to include features approved by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. Perhaps even environmentally friendly high-rises could be on the Land Bank’s agenda — these could also facilitate low-income housing.
And even less functional uses — like vegetable gardens or playgrounds — could prevent further degradation of the already burdened housing market by turning blighted properties that pull down property value into useful spaces.
This project has potential. But the officials in charge of the project should proceed with caution — wasteful uses of property or delayed development could be disastrous. It’s up to the officials in charge of the Land Bank to make sure this doesn’t happen and see that the project creates the facilities the city needs.