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Movement to bank land builds throughout northeast Ohio
Supporters say they fight blight, crime and decay

Web Editor
M.L. Schultze
In The Region:

Summit County’s council is considering tonight (Monday) creating a land bank to help reduce the number of abandoned properties. It’s part of a growing trend across the state that started two years ago with Cuyahoga County. WSKU’s M.L. Schultze reports that Stark, Erie and Trumbull counties also are all beginning work on their own banks.

SCHULTZE land bank development

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Land banks operate like a non-profit organization except they’re run by county governments. They buy vacant properties with the help of a pool of delinquent taxes, then sell or demolish the buildings. 

Former Cuyahoga County TreasurerJim Rokakis helped draft the 2009 Ohio law allowing for land banks and now runs the Western Reserve’s Land Conservancy’s Thriving Communities Institute.

 “These are tough times and land banks allow us to take control of this kind of wild-wild west that is being created by property flippers and … speculators.” 

Rokakis says land banks face two challenges. One is what he calls an embarrassment of riches. There are more abandoned properties in counties than they can afford to buy. The second issue is paying for demolition. 

”There are at least 75,000 structures by our count in this state that need to be demolished. They’ve been vandalized, they’ve been gutted; they are functionally obsolete. There is no hope that anybody’s going to move into them. We have to move to take them down because they are really damaging the value of properties around them.” 

Rokakis estimates that nearly one third of those abandoned properties are in Northeast Ohio. In Cuyahoga County, Fannie Mae, Wells Fargo and the Bank of America have all donated dozens of homes to the land bank. The three have also included checks to help cover the cost of demolishing the properties. 

Peter Elliot is the U.S. marshal for northern Ohio and he says vacant buildings pose more than a financial threat. 

ELLIOT (0:13): “It’s a law enforcement problem, and it’s a safety issue. And when you have vacant houses out there and items being stored such as drugs and guns, and fugitives hiding out in vacant houses, it’s a serious problem for the whole community.” 

Elliot says those concerns about crime are one realson to support land banks. And Rokakis and the Thriving Communities organization are using both the financial and public safety arguments to sell counties on land banks.

 They’re finding some receptive audiences.

 Stark County Treasurer Alex Zumbar has been working on a proposal since June.  He says one way he hopes a land bank can help is to buy  properties with years of tax liens against them. 

“We’ve got properties that are on our delinquent list dating well back into the 40s. And … unfortunately, we aren’t getting anybody to be interested in buying them because those taxes are far exceeding fair market value of the land and the buildings on them. And as a result they just keep accumulating those taxes, interest and penalties, and no one is going to buy those.” 

Stark County commissioners will meet this week to discuss Zumbar’s proposal for a land bank. He hopes Stark County will have one operating sometime next year.

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