While it is impossible to do justice to the entire event in a short article, here are four key takeaways that resonated through the sessions I attended.
Maybe it’s the name “land bank”, but people consistently misunderstand what a land bank is. It’s not a bank or financial institution. It’s also generally NOT a land depository where you park land.
A land bank is a quasi-public organization that identifies, acquires, stabilizes and repurposes real property that is typically vacant, abandoned, tax delinquent, foreclosed, or distressed. Their work is complicated and involves lots of moving parts, requiring a sophisticated understanding of community development, real estate law and finance, zoning and land use, community engagement, and more.
Given the nature of a land bank’s work, educating stakeholders is a must – from legislators, to private developers, to community members. It’s important for community stakeholders to have real input to decisions made by the land banks. It’s also critical that the community understands what the land bank is/can do.
In one session, land bank founding directors acknowledged that community education and outreach are more important than they realized when they started. This is even more urgent as communities grapple with systemic inequities and real estate dynamics that evolve rapidly.
Others spoke about the need to spend time in and with the community to gain trust, especially in the communities devastated by systemic and historic racism. The challenge is how to balance patience and developing relationships over time with the need to get moving on distressed property, where time is the enemy.
In an awesome session on data, Rhodes College professor Austin Harrison described a project where he and a team used machine learning and artificial intelligence to teach computers to identify indicators of blight and abandonment by processing Google street views.
During the same presentation, audience members commented in a lively chat about using Excel spreadsheets to track their property inventory and painful lack of staff to simply keep up with records. Harrison recognized the irony in his example and was quick to point out that human intelligence is at least as, if not more valuable.
The larger point is that there is a lot of really useful solutions with emerging technology tools and out of the box software solutions such as ePropertyPlus. With that, a fundamental challenge facing land banks is how to implement a data-centered strategy when resources are tight, staff expertise is limited, and software and data can feel like burdens.
We’re obviously biased, as a software company, but we think data and technology are critical resources. It is gratifying to hear how many people affirmed this during the National Land Bank Network Summit. Yet, we know that the tools are only as good as the strategy driving them and the time available for the staff to put them to work.
The overall message was that implementing a data-centered strategy is a must. This was reinforced in a different presentation by the former director of the Detroit Land Bank, Darnell Adams. He said that adopting a software solution to manage property data and processes should be the first step in organizing a land bank. He went on to stress that starting this way won’t remove the inherent challenges, but they need to be confronted at the beginning in order to organize an effective land bank.
Overarching the entire two-day event was the theme “a lack of resources” (time, budgets, and staff) that most land banks face.
Land banks play a vital role in the communities they serve, yet are woefully under-resourced. In many places, there is still a misconception that land banks can self-fund from their real estate activity.
One of the sessions that really stuck with me was given Frank Alexander, from whom so much of the country’s land bank expertise traces. Professor Alexander literally wrote the book on land banking and has been involved in starting land banks, drafting legislation, training leaders, and co-founding the Center for Community Progress. In the session he moderated with experienced land bank directors, Alexander discussed a wave of vacancy and abandonment that is coming – not from economic distress, but from climate change. He said the land bank industry as a whole is poorly equipped to confront this issue.
With this among many other challenges, the biggest barriers for land banks trying to make improvements in their communities come down to money, staff time, and strategic vision. It’s possible the recently passed infrastructure bill, which puts billions toward community resiliency and planning, will help. However, land banks will still need to have a solid strategy supported by clear data in order to put that money to good use.
My final takeaway was gratitude that our company could be a part of and support this community of practice.
Over the two days of summit presentations, I was fortunate to listen to great speakers and enjoyed lively online chats with people across the country – one participant even hailed from Scotland. There is so much creative energy across these organizations and so much potential to achieve great things. Overall, I came away from the summit energized and optimistic.
Being engaged with the participants and knowing our company’s support has helped make it happen left me with a positive buzz. If the first summit is indicative of what we can expect going forward, the future is bright for land banking in the US.
If you’d like to talk more about the information shared at the NLBN Summit or how a property data management tool like ePropertyPlus could help you implement some of the suggestions shared, please contact me to set up a time to chat.