The residential dentist: Ingham County Land Bank celebrates 15 years

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In 2005, Ingham County formed the state’s second Land Bank. The timing was worthy of Nostradamus.

“There was no housing crisis, no Great Recession,” Land Bank chairman and Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing said. “Thank God we had the Land Bank when they came.”

Greasing the skids for tax-foreclosed and mortgage-foreclosed properties to be renovated, demolished or turned into gardens isn’t all the Land Bank does, but that’s still its core mission. If neglected houses are like teeth, it falls to the Land Bank to decide where to put in bridgework, where to do a root canal, which ones to polish and which ones to pull.

“It’s been a fascinating 15 years,” Schertzing said, with droll understatement.

While in its infancy, the Land Bank was slammed with a tsunami of tax and mortgage foreclosures — over 2,000 a year at the height of the Great Recession. That crisis has receded, but the incremental work of keeping land and buildings in use, and promoting home ownership for everyone, continues.

It’s hard to pop out for a doughnut in Lansing, let alone drive across town, without passing a property the Land Bank has touched. In 15 years, the Land Bank has invested $58 million in federal, state and local funds to renovate 255 single-family homes, build 42 new single-family homes, establish nearly 200 garden parcels, demolish about 800 buildings, sell over 500 vacant lots and broker the sale of over 20 commercial properties for development.

Land Bank director Roxanne Case said the mission hasn’t changed in 15 years.

“The goal is to get properties back into productive use and back on the tax rolls,” Case said.

Back in 2005, State Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint had to warm a reluctant Schertzing to the concept.  Genesee County established the state’s first land bank in 2004. It took a little while for Schertzing, a proud Lansing booster, to accept the idea that the capital city needed the kind of residential dental work Flint or Detroit did.
“But we did, and we do,” Schertzing said.

Case was hired in late 2010, at the height of the Great Recession, as part of a staff expansion made possible by $18 million of federal stimulus money.

Foreclosures today number in the low hundreds, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

“In a perfect world, I should be working myself out of a job,” Case said. “Everyone’s taxes would be paid and there would be no foreclosures, but we’re still forging through it, trying to help with affordable housing.”

Some of the Land Bank’s new builds and rehabs are sold at market rate and others go to income-qualified buyers, depending on the source of funding. Others are sold as fixer-uppers.

Contractors are happy to get the rehab work, especially when times are slow. Dozens of contractors work on the average Land Bank project like the modest bungalow on 530 Pacific Ave., across from the old John Bean factory.

The house got the standard Land Bank makeover, including gutted and rebuilt kitchen and bathrooms, energy efficient windows, a new roof and furnace, new plumbing, refinished floors and new wiring.

More than 30 contractors tromped over the grounds, including five roofers, three men working on the exterior shell, a plumber, an electrical contractor, four painters, a carpenter, a cabinet specialist and a sewer specialist and a mysterious figure named “Little Tony.”

The Land Bank still has about 1,000 residential, commercial and industrial vacant lots, most of them in Lansing. Full city lots are sold at market rate; “side lots” are offered to neighboring landowners at reduced rates, with the help of federal funding sources.

The Land Bank has also created a pipeline of over 200 properties sold to nonprofits and investors for development or renovations, including signature Lansing projects like the Capital City Market complex and the renovation of the old School for the Blind.

Some demolitions result in shovel-ready projects — literally. The Land Bank’s Garden Project supports 200 gardens across Lansing, about 34 acres in all. There are small household gardens, community gardens and large-scale urban farms like Urbandale Farms on the city’s east side.

“It just keep expanding,” Case said, ticking off some of the benefits. “It keeps the land in use, supplies local markets with fresh produce and even helps improve drainage on the east side’s flood plain.”

In exchange for use of the property, neighbors pay a modest fee and agree to take care of the land. The Garden Project offers soil test, tilling, compost and plant starts.

“My big dream 15 years ago was that the houses we build and renovate, the blighted houses we demolish, would play a critical supporting role in contributing to population growth in Lansing,” Schertzing said. “And, in fact, for the last five or six years, population in Lansing has grown. Flint, Detroit, Jackson would kill for that.” After a decade of steady decline from 128,000 in 1996, Lansing’s population grew from its recent low point of 114,309 in 2010 to 118,427 in 2018.

Now Schertzing is focused on a new set of problems that come with that success.

“We need to do more housing and it needs to be more diverse,” he said. “Not just single family, but ‘the missing middle’ — the townhouses, the row houses, the condos. We need to line our boulevards and main roads, our transit corridors, with services and housing. We can do it.”

Schertzing sees low-income housing as a critical need. This year, Schertzing gave his staff and board members copies of a landmark study of residential discrimination, Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” He’s reading through it a second time to fully absorb the sobering lesson that active policy measures, not just under-the-radar redlining, have kept the nation’s cities segregated for decades.

“It is so powerful, so good, so unsettling,” Schertzing said. “Anybody that cares about fixing this country needs to read it.”

One obstacle to embedding diverse housing options into Lansing’s residential fabric is that federal subsidies ebb and flow. If the Land Bank began 15 years ago with an idea imported from Flint, Schertzing is now looking to Ann Arbor for a lesson in how to stay around another 15 years.

On Nov. 3, Ann Arbor voters approved a 20-year, 1-mill tax that would create up to 1,500 units of affordable housing. The regional Chamber of Commerce endorsed the proposal as a long-term solution to the city’s affordability problem and a tool to attract new residents and fill out the workforce.

“That’s close to what I’m talking about,” Schertzing said.

“We may get lucky now and then, but we can’t count on the state on the federal government for this. For the things we really need to do in our community — whether it’s parks, trails, health care or housing — we can only rely on ourselves.”

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