Could a “land bank” help turn thousands of vacant properties across Baltimore into good, lasting homes? A proposal in front of the City Council would create such an entity, used around the country to acquire blighted or neglected properties and get them into responsible hands. And a coalition of housing advocates believe it could be an efficient tool for resolving a problem the city has struggled for decades to address.

Calling themselves the Campaign for Community Control, dozens of housing advocates gathered outside vacant row homes on Belvedere Avenue in Park Heights on Tuesday morning to call on residents and city leaders to form a land bank. But while the idea had the support of several City Council members in attendance, Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration has pushed back.

What’s a land bank?

Land banks function as a middleman that acquires large swaths of vacant properties, clears their debts and title issues and then puts them into the hands of responsible developers, often by selling them below market value. In other cases, the properties could be turned into parks or green spaces.

Land banks are often public or private corporations funded with public money.

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Baltimore developer Tia Richards said at Tuesday’s event that many developers like her want to rehab vacant properties but can’t afford to do it, often because of insurmountable debt on the properties. In many cases, homes are left stranded in neighborhoods with so much vacancy that many developers avoid doing work there.

“So what do we do?” asked Richards. “There has to be someone or something that stands in the gap of taking over these types of vacancies.” Call it “Captain Save-a-Block,” she joked, Baltimore’s land bank would allow the community “to own, control and decide what comes and what goes” in neighborhoods that have struggled to bring in developers.

Addressing supporters outside an abandoned home on Belvedere Avenue in Park Heights, Imani Yasin, with the vacant property developer Parity, makes the case for establishing a Baltimore "land bank” on August 22, 2023. (Adam Willis / The Baltimore Banner)

“This is what the world looks like if left up to tax lien investors, absentee landlords, ground lease holders and real estate wholesalers,” said John Kern with the Stop Oppressive Seizures Fund, arguing that Baltimore’s market hasn’t supported restoration in blighted areas. “Our world leverages a quasi-governmental entity that’s in partnership with city agencies and like-minded investors who share this vision of community control.”

According to Kim Graziani with the Center for Community Progress, a national nonprofit focused on vacancy, many of the advantages that land banks have over city agencies come from special authorities they’re afforded from state-level legislation. Maryland approved legislation allowing Baltimore to form a land bank years ago. Because of that unique authority, the “sweet spot” for land banks is in acquiring tax-delinquent properties faster and cheaper than city agencies, said Graziani, a former Baltimore resident.

Crucially, she explained, these entities also have far more latitude to take community concerns into consideration when choosing buyers and sale prices for their properties.

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What needs to happen for Baltimore to create a land bank?

Baltimore’s proposed land bank is outlined in legislation introduced by Councilwoman Odette Ramos in March. Advocates on Tuesday pitched the idea as a chance for the city and its housing department to focus on other crucial jobs while the new entity starts making headway in some of the most blighted parts of the city. Ramos said the land bank could begin tackling vacancy while allowing the Department of Housing and Community Development time to focus on preventative approaches, like home repair. The DHCD could also take care of “basic stuff,” like permitting, Ramos said, which Banner reporting has shown is a slow and tedious process that often holds back developer work in Baltimore.

But Scott and his housing department aren’t convinced by the idea. In a statement, Department of Housing and Community Development spokeswoman Tammy Hawley said that the agency “already performs the activities proposed by the Land Bank Legislation, and then some.” The housing department takes a community-focused approach to rehabbing vacant properties and deploys a broad slate of methods to bring vacants into their control, Hawley said. She added that the department also sell properties, combines and subdivides parcels, holds properties for green spaces like parks, offers low-interest financing and grants and takes action against problem property holders.

But Ramos and other advocates see the land bank as much more efficient and flexible in this acquisition and sale process than the city. The entity would be able to draw on a slate of powers granted in Ramos’ legislation, including bonding and another key tool that has recently become central to the city’s own strategy for acquiring vacant properties. Using the legal process known as judicial in rem foreclosure, the land bank would be able to take control of properties where the value of the property’s liens — unpaid property taxes, citations and water bills — exceeds the value of the property.

Though the land bank would operate as its own entity, much of its oversight would come from city leadership. An 11-member board would include the mayor, City Council president, comptroller and the housing commissioner or their designees. Under Ramos’ proposal, the land bank would phase out after 15 years.

A coalition of housing advocates gather Tuesday on Belvedere Avenue in Park Heights to push for the creation of a Baltimore "land bank” on August 22, 2023. (Adam Willis / The Baltimore Banner)

Has this been done before?

The idea is neither new nor untested, advocates stressed at Tuesday’s event. According to the Center for Community Progress, Graziani’s organization, there are more than 250 land banks across the country spanning regional, county and municipal levels.

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Graziani said she has encountered government skepticism about the formation of land banks in other parts of the country as well, but stressed that the entity functions best as a “complement” to work local governments are already doing, specializing in tasks most bureaucracies aren’t as well equipped to manage. “Land banks are not competing with local government. Period,” she said.

The push for a land bank in Baltimore comes amid renewed attention the city’s vacant housing crisis. The Department of Housing and Community Development has estimated that Baltimore has just under 14,000 vacant properties — a figure the city has touted as the lowest in decades — while the organization BUILD sponsored a report earlier this year that painted a much larger picture, of some 70,000 vacant properties, lots and nearby buildings at risk of becoming vacant.

“We hope that the land bank will be that tool that we’ve all been waiting for,” Yolanda Jiggetts, CEO of the nonprofit Park Heights Renaissance, said at Tuesday’s campaign launch. But Jiggetts also stressed the importance of the broad reforms needed to make success of the land bank possible. “The land bank is not going to be a magic tool unless the systems that were created too long ago are also changing with the land bank,” she said.