For Buffalo to grow and prosper again, it needs to reverse its abandoned-housing crisis, and experts say the best way to do that is to create a municipal land bank.
The city will get that opportunity if state lawmakers, as expected, approve legislation to create the first land banks in the state.
The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a Buffalo Democrat, is making its way through the State Legislature and could pass as early as next week.
"It's well documented that we have an abandoned-housing crisis," Hoyt said of Buffalo. "This is a very creative and progressive approach to addressing that crisis."
Land banks are becoming a popular tool because they allow communities not only to acquire and demolish abandoned housing, but also to manage and reuse the land more effectively.
"For a place like Buffalo, which has lost so much population, the ability to control its future rests with its ability to control its land use," said Daniel Kildee, a pioneer in the national land bank movement.
Kildee, former treasurer of Genesee County, Mich., where he helped to establish a land bank, says Hoyt's bill could become a model for the rest of the country.
Supporters say the measure appears headed for approval in the Assembly and State Senate. Unlike an earlier version also sponsored by Hoyt, it is likely to gain the backing of Gov. David A. Paterson, they say.
A major reason is the support of the New York State Conference of Mayors, a group that led the opposition to Hoyt's original bill two years ago.
"We've had a lot of interaction with the governor's staff," said Kildee, who helped develop the new bill, "and the indication is that they look at this pretty favorably."
A Paterson spokesman declined to comment, except to say that the governor will review the legislation once it passes the Legislature.
One mayor who continues to have reservations about the bill is Buffalo's Byron W. Brown, a frequent Hoyt foe and a force in Paterson's veto of the last bill.
"It's a better bill," Brown spokesman Peter Cutler said this week, "but there's concern about the fiscal impact on the city."
Cutler said the mayor has doubts about a provision that would require half of all taxes paid by later purchasers of land bank property be given to the land bank for its programs rather than to the city.
Supporters say Brown's position is the exception, not the rule, among mayors and other local officials.
Two years ago, opposition coalesced around the belief that cities, not counties, should run land banks because vacant housing is largely an urban problem.
Under Hoyt's new bill, cities would have the authority to establish their own land banks as independent public corporations.
"They were listened to," said Michael Clarke of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. in Buffalo. "This bill has responded to their concerns."
Clarke says the bill has a good chance of getting signed into law, in part because of Kildee's advocacy. Kildee recently left Michigan to head the Center for Community Progress, a new group based in Washington, D.C., and dedicated to solving the vacant-housing crisis.
"He helped put together the best functioning land bank in the nation," Clarke said of Kildee. "He helped make the case that land banks can be a strong tool in addressing vacant housing."