Valley Officials Question Portrayal of Land Banks in Recent Stories

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The operators of land reutilization programs in Mahoning and Trumbull counties questioned the portrayal of land banks in a recently published pair of stories by Eye on Ohio. 

The Business Journal published stories on its website Monday and Wednesday by the not-for-profit news operation based on analysis that used machine-learning methods of property remediation in several Ohio counties. 

Officials with two land reutilization programs not mentioned in the story – Mahoning County Land Bank, which is completing its 10th year in operation and Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, which has managed Trumbull County’s land bank program since 2012 – came away not certain of the stories’ premise. 

“In some ways, things are a bit more confusing for public consumption because it just didn’t lead to any conclusions,” said Deb Flora, executive director of Mahoning County Land Bank. “It may have raised some questions to which there are answers, but I don’t think it answered the questions.”

Matt Martin, Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership executive director, expressed similar sentiments. He said he struggled over what impression the public was supposed to take away regarding land banks, which were launched in Ohio in 2009 to respond to the foreclosure crisis. 

The Trumbull County land bank launched in 2010, two years before TNP was contracted to manage it. Martin said an Eye on Ohio reporter reached out to TNP, which provided information in response to its request for information, but the material was not used.   

“The thing that jumped out to me was that there wasn’t any real context to why they [land banks] were created in the first place,” Martin said. “Maybe the point was that they’re nuanced to try to give a little peak behind the curtain on how decisions are made.”

The Trumbull land bank was created as “a response to widespread blight” resulting from abandonment over a period of time by job loss and disinvestment, “punctuated starkly by the foreclosure crisis,” Martin said.   

“Everything that occurred allowed for there to be 1,500 vacant houses in the city of Warren alone when we first counted them, and at least that many more scattered throughout the county,” he said. A common factor for many of the abandoned or “walkaway” properties was banks beginning the foreclosure process but not completing it, leaving the properties in question – and the liability for them – off their books. 

TNP has saved and renovated more than 400 houses, and in 2021, 70% of those sales went to owner occupants, he said.   

“Each land bank is fully autonomous and has different policies, practices and outcomes,” Martin said. “Our land bank is imperfect but is informed by resident outreach and has a focus on quality of life.” 

He also pointed to a part of the article about the difficulty a Cleveland homeowner faced in purchasing a property adjacent to his house from the city’s land bank, which wants to save it for future development. 

“Municipal land banks are completely antiquated, and they’ve never been particularly functional,” he remarked. 

Flora was troubled by the portrayal of a Cuyahoga County property transfer because of the relationship between a land bank official and the individual that eventually acquired the property. She acknowledged the story “rightly observed” that the property in question had gone through the tax foreclosure and sheriff’s sale processes.

“In other words, it had already been available to anyone in the public who chose to participate in the sheriff’s sale and it went for a lack of bid,” Flora said. “I was not comfortable with the way that was portrayed in the story because I thought there was an insinuation there that something looked bad when, in fact, the market had the first response to the property becoming available through the sheriff’s sale and the market did not respond. 

“The land bank then had an opportunity to do something with the property and not have it torn down because apparently there was a opportunity to do something with the property and make it productive again,” she continued. The site now generates $85,000 annual in property taxes, which is “a pretty good outcome, except for the way it happened.”  

The Mahoning County land bank has put more than 1,100 properties through its demolition program alone and conducted several thousands of transactions concerning vacant land and sidewalks. 

“In Youngstown, Ohio, we have seen what years upon years of no action on property has contributed to – a bad reputation for this city,” Flora said. “They get abandoned, beat-up properties that were so expensive to repair that demolition appears to be the better option in many cases. We’ve had an accumulation of that for so long that you needed a land bank to be empowered in the way that it is to address those issues that have gone on for so long, and that is what I see land banks in general doing around the state.”

Pictured: A house at 627 Fairfield St. NE renovated by Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.