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City moves on land banks

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City of Rochester officials are taking steps toward setting up a land bank, a nonprofit entity intended to serve as a tool to address vacant properties.

Last year, New York passed legislation authorizing 10 land banks across the state. Earlier this year it signed off on five, including one in Erie County. And earlier this month, state officials announced that the second round of applications is due on November 30.

Rochester might submit an application; staff members at City Hall are developing recommendations for City Council, as well as legislation for Council members to consider. The legislation would lay out the land bank's structure, including choosing a name, providing articles of incorporation, and creating a board of directors, says Bret Garwood, the city's director of business and housing development.

City officials have yet to decide whether they'll ultimately pursue the land bank. But a working group of staff, City Council members, and representatives from Greater Rochester Housing Partnership previously recommended pursuing the concept. The land bank would supplement existing real estate, commercial development, and vacant property efforts, Garwood says.

Land banks acquire tax delinquent or foreclosed properties and ultimately sell or transfer them to new owners. They function as an alternative to the traditional tax-foreclosure auctions and tax lien sales that governments use to try to recoup lost revenue.

Proponents say the entities have some distinct advantages, such as making it easier for municipalities to clear titles on tax-foreclosed properties. An unclear title can – and does – prevent a city from selling a foreclosed property.

Land banks also have more discretion than governments when they sell foreclosed properties. They can rehabilitate a property and sell it. Or they can search for a new owner who has a track record of fixing properties up and returning them to use.

Land banks can also take properties off of the market through demolitions or lot transfers. If a delinquent property is located between two well-kept homes, land banks will often take possession, demolish any structures, split the lot, and transfer half to each neighbor.

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