It is time for Baltimore to put one of its prime assets — vacant properties — in the bank. Yes, our vacant properties are an asset. They are land, which Malcolm X called the “basis of freedom, justice and equality.” A land bank authority for the city would accelerate the pace of community investment and move communities closer to the kind of progress Malcolm X had in mind.
Under legislation introduced in the Baltimore City Council in March, the Land Bank Authority of Baltimore City would act as a broker for Baltimore’s underutilized land. After acquiring properties available as a result of foreclosures and tax sales, it would clear back liens, assemble development-worthy parcels and sell the parcels. Much of the bank’s potential lies in its ability to reshape the enabling environment for community investment in Baltimore.
Baltimore is in a community investment renaissance. Grassroots organizations in the city’s low-income neighborhoods are piloting and capitalizing on new models for the shared ownership of real estate.
Consider Invest York Road, which empowers residents along the York Road corridor to build equity in commercial buildings through small-dollar contributions to a community-controlled fund. There is also the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, which is erecting affordable, energy-efficient condominium units for purchase on community-controlled land.
If we understand community investment as generating a pipeline of deals with accessible entry points in areas that conventional markets have left behind, then we must celebrate Baltimore’s myriad community investment projects, especially those mobilizing resources to reverse disparities in capital flows.
The Urban Institute has found that from 2004 to 2016, Baltimore’s predominantly white neighborhoods received three times or more the investment in single-family home loans, small business loans and commercial real estate loans than Baltimore’s majority-Black neighborhoods. The Land Bank Authority of Baltimore City would be well-positioned to disrupt this trend.
When organizations such as Invest York Road and the South Baltimore Community Land Trust work to reinvigorate their neighborhoods, they encounter an enabling environment of policies, regulations, incentives and subsidies, most of which are designed to stimulate conventional markets, not to jump-start new, more accessible ones.
The land bank could reconfigure public processes to level the playing field for community investment. For instance, it could have the power to enter memoranda of understanding with neighborhood investment trusts and community land trusts, offering them land at discounted prices. The land bank could even create a “first look” for neighborhood investment trusts and community land trusts, conferring an exclusive right to purchase properties before they are listed in the land bank’s online inventory for perusal by other qualified buyers. These shifts in the enabling environment would benefit low-income Baltimore residents.
If the land bank were to make more land available for community investment, it would create meaningful opportunities for shared ownership and wealth building in the areas that need and deserve them most. The land bank might even bring community investment to scale, transitioning broad swaths of local land from faltering, conventional markets, to community-controlled, equitable ones.
Land banks across the country are pursuing catalytic partnerships for community investment. In Columbus, Ohio, any property that enters its Franklin County land bank is immediately assessed to determine its suitability for preservation and stewardship by the Central Ohio Community Land Trust. In turn, that trust has received $7 million in flexible capital and low-cost loans from a city-led revolving loan fund to sustain its work with land bank properties. Baltimore can adopt Columbus’ winning approach to land banking for community investment.
Approval of the Land Bank Authority would give Baltimore another method to address vacancy and blight. As a tool for community investment, it could tackle the antecedent to vacancy and blight — disinvestment in low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods — and achieve the equality Malcolm X spoke about.
Krystle Okafor is director of policy and planning at SHARE Baltimore, Baltimore’s community land trust coalition.