The city of Charleston is doing the right thing in pursuing a land bank to combat blighted property.
But if the venture is going to be a success, it will need two things: a solid source of funding and the renewal of a law that allows city or county land banks to get first crack at the tax liens on delinquent properties.
This latter concept is referred to as a right of first refusal, which was lobbied for by the Huntington Urban Renewal Authority, which operates that city’s land bank.
In Huntington, as many as a thousand liens on a property might go up for auction in a given year. Many out-of-state investors will purchase these liens as a way to earn money on interest or as tax shelters. The right of first refusal, which recently became law, allows municipalities or county governments operating a land bank to look at the liens before they go on the auction block, thus allowing organizers to acquire particularly blighted properties without being outbid.
The law was enacted on a sort of trial basis, and is set to expire in 2020. The West Virginia Legislature should renew this law, because, without it, no land bank is going to be able to address the blight problem in a very meaningful way.
Of course, funding is important, too. The Huntington land bank operates on a line of credit, and has not been able to bid on tax liens over the past couple of years because of its financial situation. Instead, according to Christal Perry, who heads up Huntington’s land bank, the city has focused on demolishing or returning blighted properties to use with the money it does have.
In Charleston’s case, it’s possible that newly enacted tougher fines on blight can help to pay for some of the operations, but abandoned or blighted property owners can be hard to find, let alone collect money from.
Still, the city has to do something, and this is a step in the right direction. It should be afforded all of the advantages to make the project a success.
Huntington has operated its land bank since 2009. With Charleston now establishing its own, surely the state’s two largest cities can form the political will needed to keep the right of first refusal on the books. Hopefully, this new momentum can also spur new developments to make fighting blight a more nimble process.