A chance to beat blight

December 3, 2012

Abandoned, blighted buildings are, at best, an albatross around the necks of communities and, at worst, a noose.

Like a fire roaring through a paper mill, the problem feeds on itself and inexorably gathers strength: abandoned, blighted buildings don’t generate property tax revenue for the municipalities where they are languishing, and they lower the value of nearby properties, so those properties generate less property tax revenue. At the same time, depleted city coffers are drained to deal with the crime that abandoned, vacant structures attract. As blight proliferates, crime increases and services decline, and residents who can pull up stakes decide to bolt for their own safety or sanity.

And that, of course, leads to less revenue, and yet more abandoned structures. Detroit and its blocks of battered, empty homes and deteriorating businesses is almost certainly the epitome of blight’s long-term, corrosive downward spiral.

There’s no magic wand to wave away blight, but a land bank proposal signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett that goes into effect on Christmas Eve offers some hope for Washington and other communities across Pennsylvania that they will be able to fight blight on a new front.

The Land Bank Act allows municipalities to take control of properties that are mired in foreclosures and encumbered by liens, and then sell them to developers or buyers who are prepared to revitalize them. The land banks will be structured along the same lines as municipal authorities and, in Washington, the task will be handled by Citywide Development Corp.

“It’s the start of much more to come,” Washington’s mayor Brenda Davis explained in a story that appeared in the Observer-Reporter on Monday.

While providing a new and useful tool, a land bank will probably not be a cure-all. A University of Michigan study noted that the land bank that had been established in Atlanta was plagued by insufficient funds to acquire properties, Cleveland’s land bank was hobbled by administrative hurdles and, in the Michigan county that contains the bedraggled city of Flint, there were questions about whether the sale of blighted properties would even generate enough money to cover administrative costs.

But the Land Bank Act offers a promising step forward. As Franklin Roosevelt noted as he was pushing New Deal legislation to lift the country out of the Great Depression, “Do something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, do something else.”



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