Mayor of Upstate New York city looks to start a land bank

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The mayor of Niagara Falls, N.Y. is asking local lawmakers to authorize the city's participation in a multi-jurisdictional land bank initiative, a non-profit organization officials say will be a tool to beat back urban blight.

Mayor Paul Dyster said last week the land bank would create what is technically referred to as a "Foreclosing Governmental Unit," which allows municipalities the "opportunity to do something we currently cannot do, and that is to purchase a house in advance of foreclosure."

If the Niagara Falls City Council approves the request, Dyster said the city would be a position to buy up properties in the process of foreclosure and secure the house before it "has sat vacant and been destroyed by weather or vandals or animals or whatever else."

Land bank officials, after a purchase, would be tasked with either contracting or ordering in-house rehabilitation of the property before it is offered up for sale.

In an otherwise stable neighborhood where there is "one bad apple," Dyster said the city can step in.

"We can go out and negotiate with the owner as the property is falling toward foreclosure (to) get control of the property while there's still value in it," he said.

The land bank would be funded by a variety of methods, including soliciting grant funding. The primary funding source is the state Attorney General's Eric Schneiderman's Office, which since 2011 has offered over $30 million across the state to facilitate the efforts, according to publications released by the agency.

"A conservative estimate suggests that NY land banks have leveraged the funding from the AG's office to raise over $20 million dollars from other sources," a 2016 AG report said.

Ultimately, the city could become something of a house flipper, Dyster said, in which there may be revenues. Even if money is lost on the venture, Dyster said the city will still come out "ahead" if the sum was less than the cost of demolishing the home.

Dyster said the Falls made a push to join another recently created land bank, the Buffalo Erie Niagara Land Improvement Corp., or BENLIC.

"We were disappointed we were unable to gain access to (BENLIC), even though it has the word Niagara in it," he said.

The mayor's request asks local lawmakers to authorize an inter-municipal agreement that "may" include the county of Orleans, the city of Lockport, the city of North Tonawanda and the city of Niagara Falls, which would be christened "NORLIC."

North Tonawanda lawmakers unanimously approved their city's participation in the land bank last week.

But some Falls officials still have questions about the initiative, including City Council Chairman Charles Walker.

According to the existing legal resolutions, NORLIC is set to be governed by a board consisting of, for now, Niagara County's Manager Richard Updegrove and chairman of the Orleans County Legislature David Callard. In addition, each city will be allowed one representative on the board, a mayor or a mayoral appointee.

"Things like this can be great for the city, but if it gets in the wrong hands of somebody who has a different kind of idea, it can go in a negative way," Walker said on Friday.

"Sometimes people use good ideas for personal advantage," he added.

Walker said his questions would focus on protecting the board from being politicized and how it will ensure benefits for the city.

Tompkins said on its face, the initiative appears to be a "very good thing for Niagara Falls," but he too has questions for the administration.

"I know right now it's kind of the hot thing to do," he said.

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