Land banks could address local housing, other needs

In the past, Housing Transitions Inc. has looked into the possibility of using abandoned and tax delinquent properties as possibilities for affordable housing.

At that time, Executive Director Ron Quinn said challenges like having to purchase a property as-is and fund renovations made the idea too challenging to pursue. But with new legislation in Pennsylvania allowing and regulating land banks, such properties could be used for affordable housing, green space and other community needs.

Quinn said he’s not familiar with the new legislation, which took effect early this year, but that it’s “definitely” something he would want to look at.

“Right now, we’re looking at every option possible,” he said of his organization and the State College Community Land Trust, which work to secure affordable housing for local residents. “Nothing’s off the table.”

The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania on Wednesday hosted a training session at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel on land banks, which keynote speaker and Emory University law professor Frank Alexander defined as government entities focused on converting abandoned or tax delinquent properties to productive use.

“They’re a liability to the neighborhood, but also to the local government,” he said. “Vacant and abandoned properties are the litter of a consumption society and it’s time that we stop littering.”

Such uses are determined locally, he said, and could be affordable housing, market-rate housing, green spaces, or even a grocery store, for example, if there isn’t one within five miles of a particular property.

The affordable housing issue, in particular, could become important in Centre County, as officials and advocates note a lack of such housing continues to be a problem. Discussion has increased in the last six months with the announcement of the closure and sale of two mobile home parks, in College and Patton townships, not the first parks to close here.

Quinn said that, in past years, housing organizations couldn’t get into delinquent homes to inspect them, and that those homes were in rural parts of the county, making them less accessible to transportation and other amenities.

“We pulled away from it because there were so many complexities in the process,” he said. “It didn’t really seem to fit our capacity and our ability to move quickly into that area.”

But the new legislation could help.

The Pennsylvania law is part of what Alexander called a third generation of such laws. Those started in the early 1970s, with “modest levels of success” and continue today.

In Pennsylvania, a municipality with a population of more than 10,000 can form a land bank, or smaller municipalities can combine to do so. The municipality creates a land bank by ordinance and has a board that can acquire land by donation, municipal transfer, purchase, tax foreclosure sale or other methods. From there, it can look at local needs for use of the properties it obtains.

“It’s important that a land bank have a clear focus for why it’s being created,” Alexander said.

Addressing some of Quinn’s previous challenges, the law gives a land bank power to rehabilitate properties and secure funding though grants and loans, from leasing the properties to third parties and other methods. The properties held in the land bank also must be maintained to meet local ordinances and code requirements.