Land Bank is fighting “urban blight” in the suburbs

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Foreclosed properties fostering neighborhood blight affects just about every city, town, and village in Western New York.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says a land bank is helping to cure Erie County’s “epidemic of vacant properties” caused in part by America’s mortgage foreclosure crisis. Schneiderman provided the two-million dollars to help the Buffalo Erie Niagara Land Improvement Corporation (“Land Bank”) fulfill its mission.

The Land Bank buys a vacant property that is still valuable and “banks” it for rehabilitation, or demolition to be re-sold and returned to the tax rolls.

“The entire community starts picking itself up once you start removing the blight,” says Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski.

The mayor says the Land Bank is helping his city, which he says can no longer afford to “fight the blight” on its own.

“With the Land Bank, we will be able to refurbish homes that are not in blighted condition, refurbish them, and sell them to somebody who wants to become a responsible homeowner,” he explained.

Schneiderman provided two-million dollars for the Land Bank to take control of abandoned foreclosed property, which can bring a whole neighborhood down.

“They can buy and rehabilitate properties, they can demolish properties. They can deed or sell vacant lots to the people next door, so they can get back on the tax rolls,” Schneiderman said.

Last year, homeowners on Fowler Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda called Call 4 Action when the owner of a house there walked away.

Linda Rohe was adamant, “Everybody around here keeps up their property, as you can see, and this is just awful.”

The Land Bank took control of the property, but costly repairs to an unsteady foundation could rule out rehab, which could mean demolition.

Newly-appointed Land Bank Executive Director Jocelyn Gordon says, “If for some reason we can’t, and we do have to take the house down, we would start talking to the neighbors on the street right away to see if they have an interest in possibly having Fowler become a part of our Side Lot program.”

Schneiderman is also taking aim at what are called “Zombie Properties,” where a bank has foreclosed, the owners walk away, but the bank does little to maintain the property. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz says local officials’ hands are tied to do anything about “Zombie Properties” because “the bank will pay the taxes, so we can’t foreclose on it and it just falls into utter disrepair.”

State lawmakers are crafting a measure that would hold banks responsible for keeping up their “Zombie Properties.”

Schneiderman says, “It is to make the banks maintain those properties, to require that they maintain them, to remove any incentive to drag their feet.”

He says the Land Bank has become a model for other regional land banks with money coming from a National Mortgage Settlement reached with the country’s five largest banks.

That settlement is also providing legal assistance for homeowners fighting to keep their homes out of foreclosure.

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