Results and accomplishments
In FY22, the Genesee County Land Bank Authority (GCLBA) sold 826 properties, returning them to productive use and to the tax rolls.
During FY22, GCLBA recruited volunteers to adopt or lease 971 vacant lots and provide regular maintenance for these properties.
In FY22, GCLBA removed 155 tons of garbage and debris from vacant properties.
GCLBA boarded and secured approximately 1,000 vacant properties in Flint and broader Genesee County in FY22.
Addressing tax-foreclosed properties: Between 2002 and 2015, more than 24,000 properties in Genesee County were tax-foreclosed for at least one year. The Genesee County Land Bank Authority (GCLBA) works to reposition these tax-foreclosed properties for productive uses. Over a seven-year period, about one-half of one percent of properties sold by the Land Bank re-entered tax foreclosure, while nearly 57 percent of properties sold by the County Treasurer at auction did.
Mitigating the effects of deteriorating properties: Between 2008 and 2014, the Genesee County Treasurer transferred nearly 10,000 properties to GCLBA. Over that period, the number of Land Bank-owned properties rated as in poor or substandard condition declined by 56 and 13 percent, respectively.
Reducing violent crime: GCLBA’s Clean and Green Program supports community groups that conduct routine maintenance of vacant lots throughout the county. Over a five year period, streets with vacant lots maintained through the Clean and Green Program had almost 40 percent fewer violent crimes reported than similar streets not included in the program.
Securing over $43.7M for demolitions: Leveraging funding directed to cities and counties by the American Rescue Plan Act, GCLBA has secured over $43.7M to demolish blighted structures in Flint, MI. This includes $28.5M from the city and county governments, $10M from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, $5M through Congressman Dan Kildee’s Community Project Funding initiative, and $250,000 from the Michigan State Land Bank Authority. GCLBA estimates that it will be able to demolish over 2,000 blighted structures with this funding.
In the late twentieth century, disinvestment and deindustrialization led to reduced economic opportunity and significant population decline in Genesee County. Left with an oversupply of housing, the area’s property values declined and rates of property vacancy and abandonment rose. Recognizing the link between vacant and abandoned properties and a host of negative social and economic outcomes, local leaders began searching for a way to acquire, maintain, and repurpose these properties.
In 2004, Genesee County formed the Genesee County Land Bank Authority (GCLBA). GCLBA takes ownership of tax-foreclosed properties from the County Treasurer. Based on each property’s condition, the availability of funds, and other factors, GCLBA works to demolish hazardous structures on, maintain, and sell or redevelop these properties.
Keys to GCLBA’s success included their community-driven approach; their commitment to developing clear and consistent processes; strong support from local, state, and federal government leaders; and the long tenure of its staff.
Obstacles that Genesee County faced included difficulty building the initial support needed to found the Land Bank, insufficient funding to match the scale of property vacancy and abandonment, public skepticism toward GCLBA’s sales processes and large property inventory, and difficulty hiring contractors and property maintenance staff.
What was the challenge?
Decades of disinvestment and deindustrialization: In the early and mid-twentieth century, Genesee County was an industrial powerhouse, with over 80,000 residents employed by General Motors alone. As disinvestment, deindustrialization, and white flight began in the 1970s, Flint, the county’s principal city, experienced a significant decline in employment rate and median income. Perhaps most startling, however, was the resulting population change: Flint’s population fell from its height of nearly 200,000 in the 1960s to 125,000 in 2000.
An oversupply of housing: While Flint’s employment rate, median income, and population fell, the size of its housing stock remained relatively constant. The resulting oversupply of housing depressed the area’s property values and led to high rates of property vacancy and abandonment. Without owners taking care of them, many properties entered a state of disrepair.
Vacant and abandoned properties impact the community: As in similar communities across the country, vacant and abandoned properties posed a threat to the health and safety of Genesee County residents. For instance, in Flint, researchers found a correlation between vacant properties and nearby violent crime. And in other cities, researchers have long noted an association between proximity to vacant lots or abandoned properties and higher rates of chronic illness and mental health conditions.
Shrinking the tax base: Whether due to their own financial hardship or the significant decline in property values, many property owners stopped paying property taxes. Each year, thousands of properties entered tax foreclosure status, meaning the owner had not paid their property taxes in the previous three years. Collectively, these tax foreclosed properties represented a significant financial loss for local governments.
What was the solution?
Founding the land bank: In 2004, Genesee County and the State of Michigan entered into an agreement to form the Genesee County Land Bank Authority (GCLBA). Operating under county authority, GCLBA acquires, develops, and distributes vacant and abandoned properties with the aim of repositioning them for productive uses.
Receiving tax foreclosed properties: After the Genesee County Treasurer completes the tax foreclosure process, GCLBA takes ownership of the properties. Based on each property’s condition, the availability of funds, and other factors, the Land Bank aims to demolish structures on, maintain, or sell these properties to new owners.
Demolishing hazardous structures: Most properties that the Land Bank receives are deteriorated beyond repair and require demolition. As GCLBA secures funding, it hires contractors to safely demolish structures and remove the debris. Properties are prioritized for demolition based on factors like adjacency to occupied homes, proximity to parks and schools, and the population density of the surrounding neighborhood.
Maintaining Land Bank properties: GCLBA hires professional crews to remove garbage, mow grass, and perform other yard work on vacant, Land Bank-owned properties. This work is supplemented by Clean and Green, a community-based property maintenance program. As part of the program, community-based groups, like block clubs and churches, receive a small stipend to defray the costs of maintaining a set of vacant properties.
Positioning properties for reuse: When feasible, GCLBA aims to sell or redevelop the properties it owns. Based on their condition, the Land Bank markets residential properties for use as a primary residence, for rehab by an investor, or for demolition. Vacant lots are also available for purchase through its Side Lot Program, which allows property owners to purchase lots adjacent to their own for a small fee. Commercial and industrial properties are typically listed through a local realtor.
What factors drove success?
Taking a community-driven approach: Throughout its work, GCLBA prioritizes community engagement. Most prominently, GCLBA works with dozens of community-based organizations and hundreds of volunteers through its Clean and Green program. By creating this opportunity for involvement, GCLBA builds the community’s familiarity with and trust in the Land Bank.
Developing clear and consistent processes: GCLBA uses standardized, data-informed processes to make decisions. For instance, when prioritizing which structures to demolish, the Land Bank uses a scoring framework that incorporates criteria that reflect residents’ priorities. By standardizing its processes, GCLBA reduces administrative burden and makes its decisions easier to explain to the public.
Strong champions in government: GCLBA has close relationships with leaders in local, state, and federal government. These connections lend GCLBA credibility, provide it access to technical assistance, connect it to potential funding opportunities, and facilitate networking with other organizations focused on community development.
Long tenure of staff: Historically, turnover of key staff at GCLBA has been low. This has enabled the Land Bank to develop strong relationships with partner organizations, like the City of Flint. Additionally, as much of GCLBA’s work is funded through government grants, the organization’s familiarity with the restrictions and reporting requirements associated with this funding reduces its administrative burden.
What were the major obstacles?
Convincing leaders to found the land bank: As then-Country Treasurer Dan Kildee began pushing for the establishment of GCLBA, some members of the Genesee County Board of Commissioners remained skeptical. There were thousands of vacant and abandoned properties in the county, many of which were in poor condition. Taking direct responsibility for these properties would pose a significant public relations challenge and financial commitment.
Insufficient funding to meet the scale of the problem: As of 2022, Genesee County had over 30,000 vacant or blighted properties in need of demolition or ongoing maintenance. Over a five year period, demolition and maintenance for these properties would cost approximately $154 million. With its current resources, GCLBA cannot address the full scale of vacant and blighted properties in Flint and the wider county.
Holding a large property inventory: GCLBA owns approximately 15,000 properties, including about 3,000 with structures in need of demolition. Typically, these properties were vacant and abandoned for years before they were transferred to the Land Bank. Despite this, the size of GCLBA’s property portfolio can create the perception among members of the public that it causes blight instead of addressing it.
Public skepticism toward land bank property sales: While many of GCLBA’s programs have simple, easily-observable processes, its sales program was more difficult for the general public to understand. This led some community members to hold misconceptions about the sales program, such as that GCLBA mostly sells to out-of-town investors. To address this issue, GCLBA created outreach materials to explain the sales process and began tracking and reporting sales data to the public.
Hiring contractors and maintenance staff: GCLBA has struggled to keep pace with recent rises in pay for property maintenance workers, contractors, and tradespeople. The inconsistency of funding for demolition work also presents a problem. Local contractors are hesitant to significantly expand capacity, knowing that GCLBA spending will eventually decrease. To compensate for these challenges, GCLBA offers quality employee benefits and consistent hours to these workers.
Recognizing that the state’s process for collecting delinquent property taxes largely benefits investors over affected communities, Michigan rewrites its tax foreclosure laws. These changes enabled County Treasurers to assume control of tax-foreclosed properties.
Then-County Treasurer Dan Kildee leads the creation of the Genesee County Land Reutilization Council. A precursor to GCLBA, the Council focuses on acquiring tax-foreclosed properties, demolishing hazardous structures, and selling side lots.
Governor Jennifer Granholm signs the Land Bank Fast Track Act, enabling cities and counties to form land bank authorities. The legislation granted these authorities with special legal and financial tools to address tax foreclosed properties.
With enabling legislation in place, the Genesee County Land Reutilization Council reorganizes into the Genesee County Land Bank Authority.
Partnering with the University of Michigan and the Genesee Institute, GCLBA publishes “Reimagining Chevy in the Hole,” a report that outlines concepts for redeveloping Chevy Commons, a 60-acre former manufacturing complex. Based on this report, local leaders would later plan to redevelop Chevy Commons into a State Park by 2040.
GCLBA begins receiving Hardest Hit Fund grants from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. Ultimately GCLBA secures more than $67.5M, funding the demolition of 4720 tax-foreclosed structures between 2014 and 2020.
During its first ten years in operation, GCLBA accepted 14,803 tax-foreclosed properties. It sold 2,210 houses, including many to first-time homebuyers; demolished 4,819 blighted residential structures; removed more than 4,000 tons of trash from vacant properties; and more.
After six years of construction, GCLBA and its partners complete the redevelopment of a 16-acre portion of Chevy Commons from an industrial brownfield site into a community green space.
Recognizing the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) as an opportunity to raise significant funds to demolish blighted structures, GCLBA sets a fundraising goal of $45.3M.
By April 2023, GCLBA secures $43.7M of its $45.3M fundraising goal. This includes $16 million in ARPA funding from the City of Flint, $8 million in ARPA funding from Genesee County, $10 million in grant funding from the Mott Foundation, $4.5 million from the Genesee County Treasurer, $5 million through Congressman Dan Kildee’s Community Project Funding initiative, and $250,000 from the Michigan State Land Bank Authority.
How did leaders confront the problem?
Recognizing a failed system: After Michigan reformed its tax foreclosure process in 1999, County Treasurers began assuming ownership of tax-foreclosed properties. As a result, County Treasurers began selling these properties at auction. However, the auction system proved unable to handle the large volume of tax-foreclosed properties in Genesee County, leaving many properties vacant and abandoned. Local leaders like then-County Treasurer Dan Kildee began searching for an approach that allowed the community to control and benefit from the disposition of these properties.
Convening experts to identify a solution: Working with the Brookings Institution, Kildee and his staff organized a national assembly of housing experts in Washington, DC. By the end of the event, Kildee concluded that a land bank would best position Genesee County to receive and repurpose tax-foreclosed properties.
Piloting a new land bank model: At the time, Michigan did not have a law enabling counties to establish land banks. Working within existing law, Kildee spearheaded the creation of the Genesee County Land Reutilization Council in 2002. The precursor to GCLBA, the Council focused on acquiring tax-foreclosed properties, demolishing hazardous structures, and selling side lots. With the Council representing a successful proof of concept, demand for enabling legislation increased.
State passes enabling legislation: In 2004, Governor Jennifer Granholm signed the Land Bank Fast Track Act, which enabled cities and counties to establish land bank authorities. The legislation provided local governments with better legal and financial tools to acquire, hold, and repurpose vacant and abandoned properties. With the legislation in place, the Genesee County Land Reutilization Council reorganized as the Genesee County Land Bank Authority.
How was the strategy designed?
Keeping individuals in their homes: As a public entity, GCLBA aims to keep residents housed. When it receives a property from the County Treasurer that is occupied, the Land Bank tries to keep the occupants in their home. If they were renters, GCLBA may offer to sell the property to the tenants. If the occupants owned the property when it entered tax foreclosure, they are not eligible to purchase the property. However, the Land Bank may offer to sell the property to a relative of the occupant, if they meet the eligibility requirements.
Promoting homeownership: One goal of GCLBA’s sales program is to increase homeownership. The Land Bank’s Featured Homes program achieves this by selling properties that are in relatively good condition to individuals who will use them as their primary residence. To further support homeownership, GCLBA offers land contracts to buyers who are not eligible for a traditional mortgage. Under this arrangement, the Land Bank provides the buyer with financing, usually with a contract term of five years or less.
Ensuring successful sales: GCLBA sets requirements to reduce the likelihood that the properties it sells will re-enter tax foreclosure. While these requirements vary by the type of sale, buyers must typically demonstrate that they can afford to purchase and maintain the property. For example, buyers of properties in need of significant rehab are required to set up an in-person showing, provide an estimate for the cost of repairs needed to bring the structure up to code, and demonstrate that they have the assets or financing needed to cover those repair costs.
Creating jobs for area residents: GCLBA leverages its maintenance and demolition spending to create economic opportunities for county residents. Each year, GCLBA hires crews to maintain vacant properties from late Spring through Fall. The Land Bank staffs these crews with local residents, and offers training for those without experiencing performing property maintenance. Similarly, GCLBA aims to hire local contractors for its demolition work. In anticipation of its upcoming, $45.3M demolition program, the Land Bank hosted a forum to assist local and minority contractors with the prequalification and bidding processes.
Conducting safe demolitions: To keep workers and nearby residents safe, GCLBA has strict safety requirements for contractors performing demolitions. These include requirements to safely handle and dispose of asbestos and other hazardous materials, to spray structures with water to reduce the spread of dust, to expeditiously remove debris after a demolition, and more.
How was the plan implemented?
An early emphasis on sales and rentals: From the start, GCLBA focused on selling the properties in its portfolio to new owners willing and able to maintain them. Based on its early experience, the Land Bank streamlined its application process for prospective buyers, with the aim of increasing sales. Early on, GCLBA also managed multiple rental properties, but later shifted away from this approach due to high costs and other challenges. Currently, the Land Bank retains a small number of rental units for use by residents after their homes go through tax foreclosure.
Demand for demolitions grows: In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, tax foreclosures in Genesee County increased. While GCLBA had previously accepted around 500 properties per year, since 2009, it has accepted between 1,000 and 2,000 each year. As its inventory of properties in substandard condition grew, GCLBA aimed to increase the number of demolitions it completed. Support from local partners, like the City of Flint, funded additional demolitions, but later federal funding enabled GCLBA to scale up these efforts considerably.
A focus on property development: In addition to its focus on demolitions, sales, and property maintenance, GCLBA has increased its focus on property development. Most prominently, GCLBA serves as the project manager for the redevelopment of Chevy Commons, a 60-acre property that formerly held a General Motors production facility. Working with local, state, and federal partners, GCLBA developed a plan to transform Chevy Commons into a State Park by 2040. By 2021, 16 acres had been redeveloped from an industrial brownfield site into a community green space.
How was the approach funded?
Raising money through property sales: In fiscal year 2022, GCLBA completed 826 property sales. Typically, property sales represent the Land Bank’s largest source of revenue and provide funding that can be reinvested to support other operations.
Receiving government support: GCLBA regularly receives funding from Genesee County, the State of Michigan, and the federal government. As these funds typically come with more restrictions, GCLBA uses most of its government funding for the maintenance and disposition of vacant and abandoned properties.
Innovating with philanthropic dollars: Since its founding, GCLBA has had strong relationships with philanthropic partners, like the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Often, GCLBA leverages grants from these partners to fund neighborhood revitalization and development activities, which are typically not eligible for government grants.
Leveraging the Hardest Hit Fund for demolitions: In 2010, the Obama Administration unveiled the Hardest Hit Fund (HHF), a program to provide aid to states most impacted by the 2008 financial crisis. Initially, the Treasury Department did not permit HHF funds to be used for property demolitions. However, after advocacy from Dan Kildee, then Executive Director of the Center for Community Progress, among others, the Treasury Department authorized the use of HHF for demolitions. Ultimately GCLBA secured more than $67.5M through HHF, funding the demolition of 4720 tax-foreclosed structures between 2014 and 2020.
Continuing demolitions using ARPA dollars: When the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) passed in 2021, GCLBA recognized an opportunity to raise funds to continue its demolition program at scale. GCLBA set a goal to raise $45.3 million - enough to fund up to 2,415 demolitions. As of April 2023, GCLBA has secured $43.7 million, including $16 million in ARPA funding from the City of Flint, $8 million in ARPA funding from Genesee County, $10 million in grant funding from the Mott Foundation, $4.5 million from the Genesee County Treasurer, $5 million through Congressman Dan Kildee’s Community Project Funding initiative, and $250,000 from the Michigan State Land Bank Authority.
How was the approach measured and refined?
Leveraging data on local properties: In collaboration with the City of Flint, GCLBA created the Flint Property Portal, a real-time inventory of every property in Flint. The Portal gives GCLBA easy access to basic information on each property, such as who owns the property, its current condition, and more. Among other uses, these data allow the Land Bank to prioritize properties for inspection that may be easily repurposed or are likely eligible for demolition.
Using data to prioritize demolitions: GCLBA created a scoring framework to prioritize which structures to demolish. In addition to information on property conditions from the Flint Property Portal, the framework incorporates Census data, and other information available at the parcel level. By systematizing the prioritization process, GCLBA can quickly identify properties for demolition as funding becomes available. Additionally, since the framework uses largely objective factors, it makes the Land Bank’s decisions on which structures to demolish easier to explain to the public.
Adapting sales procedures based on feedback: When GCLBA closes a property sale, it collects feedback from the buyer through a questionnaire. In the past, GCLBA required potential buyers of its “Ready for Rehab” properties to set up an appointment to view a property with their own licensed contractor. After learning that most buyers do not use the same contractor for both the showing and the eventual repairs on the property, and this made finding a contractor for the showing difficult, GCLBA removed this requirement.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their support in writing this case study: Congressman Dan Kildee; Michael Freeman, Executive Director of GCLBA; Christina Kelly, Director of Planning and Neighborhood Revitalization at GCLBA; Alexandra Riley, Director of Sales and Development at GCLBA; Duane Bickford, Director of Property Maintenance at GCLBA; Natalie Pruett, Economist and Strategist; Jennifer Acree, Program Officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation; and Sarah Schuch, Communications Officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
This case study was written by Cole Ware and Ross Tilchin.