Four years after Roanoke established a land bank to turn blighted houses into affordable homes, only a handful of properties are beginning to get fixed up.
Nonprofit developers are refurbishing seven homes in Southeast Roanoke’s Belmont-Fallon neighborhood. Total Action for Progress, the city’s official land bank operator, acquired those properties after the city provided the nonprofit with federal pandemic relief funds in late 2021.
Now, officials hope a change to the program will help bring more abandoned homes into the fold.
City Council on Monday tweaked its agreement with TAP so it can more easily acquire properties otherwise destined for the city’s delinquent tax sale auction.
The city aims to petition a court to transfer some properties with significant unpaid taxes directly to the land bank, rather than to the public auction, where bidders can drive up prices.
“I’m really excited about this,” Vice Mayor Joe Cobb said at a City Council meeting Monday. “And I also just want to ask, are there any other hurdles that we have to address before we can get this started?”
“I think we’re in the position we need to be in,” City Manager Bob Cowell replied.
Land banks offer a way for communities to turn vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties into productive use. But it’s been a slow-going process in Virginia, where the General Assembly only recently, in 2016, allowed cities and counties to create land banks — either through a new government-operated authority or through an existing nonprofit.
When Roanoke tasked TAP in April 2019 with operating the land bank, the city heralded the program as “a method for increasing development of affordable housing in the City and reducing the number of blighted and vacant properties.”
To date, TAP has worked with the nonprofits Habitat for Humanity, Community Housing Partners and Restoration Housing on acquiring and refurbishing seven properties, said Angela Penn, TAP’s senior vice president for economic and real estate development. Three more properties are in the pipeline.
Those restorations fall within Roanoke’s “Belmont-Fallon Target Area,” where the city has dedicated federal housing funds from 2019 through 2024 to build new homes and fix old ones. Roanoke aims to start building or renovating 40 homes in the neighborhood over that timeframe.
TAP’s goal is to use $570,685 in funds provided by the city’s American Rescue Plan allocation on acquiring 15 properties. Penn said TAP has spent $227,605 so far and has not earmarked any internal funds to acquiring properties for the land bank.
The latest change to Roanoke’s agreement with TAP means the agency could receive certain properties valued at $75,000 that have significant back taxes or liens.
“City staff would petition the circuit court to appoint a special commissioner to convey such properties to TAP for the Land Bank,” says a city report. “Thereafter, TAP would convey such property to a developer to rehabilitate and restore for sale to low to moderate income persons.”
David Collins, a senior assistant city attorney, will serve as the special commissioner.
Last month, Council tasked Collins with seizing delinquent property near the airport that has become a frequent site of homeless encampments. While that capability has long been available to localities, Collins said a new state law that went into effect last July allows localities to convey seized properties directly to their land banks.
Acquiring properties directly from a locality is just one option for a land bank. As Collins put it, “Any way you and I can buy property, the land bank can buy property.”
But TAP has not purchased delinquent properties at public auction, nor has it been the recipient of donated properties to date, according to Penn.
The slow pace of Roanoke’s land bank has been a frustration for some.
John Garland, a property manager, helped push for Roanoke to establish a land bank back when he served on City Council from 2016 until he resigned in 2019, a few months before the city contracted with TAP.
“Quite frankly, I was disappointed it went to TAP, because TAP didn’t have a real good track record on properties that they acquired and renovated and turned into rental properties,” Garland said.
(In a follow-up email, Penn said it was TAP’s first time hearing of a critique like this, adding, “Our agency has a proud 58 year history of providing quality, safe, affordable housing to low income individuals and families and we look forward to continuing to do that through the land bank with the cooperation and collaboration of our housing partners and other developers.”)
Brad Stephens, interim executive director of the nonprofit REACH, said he submitted a proposal back when the city was accepting bids for a land bank operator in the summer of 2018. But he knew it would not be a competitive offer because he was proposing a new nonprofit that would require city funds.
“The city at that point said that they were not going to put any funds into the project, and I believe that to be successful it needed to have some city support for the first few years,” he said.
“I don’t think the city or TAP have quite figured out how to most effectively do it,” Stephens added, noting that other Virginia land banks have also struggled. “No one’s quite figured out the secret sauce.”
Bernadette “BJ” Lark, a community activist, worked several years ago with other Gainsboro residents on a vision for a land trust specific to that neighborhood.
Lark said the group met with TAP but the efforts ultimately fizzled. She still holds out hope that Gainsboro community members will unite in efforts to fix up dilapidated houses. The neighborhood's blighted houses became the focus of a recent city-sponsored community meeting about a future Gainsboro hub.
“I’m very disappointed that it has taken this long, but I’m very optimistic that something is about to happen good,” Lark said of the city’s land bank. “We are often told, ‘Oh, but you can’t complain, because things are better.’ And I want to tell you, ‘better’ has never meant ‘good.’”
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