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Land-bank bill approval may help fight vacant housing

New York State is on the verge of approving a new tool to help cities combat their vacant housing crises.

The question is whether Buffalo, home to the highest vacancy rate in the state, will buy into municipal land banks as a remedy.

A bill creating New York's first land banks passed the Assembly and State Senate and, according to supporters, is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

"It's a proven tool that has worked in other cities," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a Buffalo Democrat who sponsored the land-bank bill and has been pushing for their creation for three years.

Land banks are becoming a popular vehicle because they allow communities to not only acquire and demolish abandoned housing but also manage and reuse the land more effectively.

"We've been waiting for this for a long time," said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "Vacant housing and vacant lots are among the most pressing problems when it comes to our quality of life."

Dyster's claims are backed up by new census figures. While Buffalo recorded the highest vacancy rate in the state last year -- 15.7 percent -- Niagara Falls was a close second at 13.8 percent.

For that reason, Dyster is pushing for the creation of land banks and says Niagara Falls would be interested in creating one. Hoyt's legislation also enjoys support among other upstate mayors and the New York State Conference of Mayors.

One of the few exceptions is Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, who has opposed previous versions of Hoyt's legislation. Brown and Hoyt are longtime political foes.

Brown has voiced concern in the past about who operates land banks -- cities or counties -- and who receives money from the sale of land-bank property -- the land bank or the municipality.

Hoyt claims that Brown's concerns have been addressed and that his new bill gives Buffalo complete control over its land bank if it wants one.

Brown spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge acknowledged that some of the mayor's past worries are addressed in the new bill but added that Brown remains concerned about funding land banks.

The other wild card is Cuomo. While land-bank supporters believe the governor will sign the bill, he has yet to formally endorse it.

"The expectation is he will," said Michael Clarke of Local Initiatives Support Corp. in Buffalo, an organization pushing for land banks in New York. "We have reason to believe he'll be supportive."

In drafting the legislation, supporters studied the success of the land bank in Flint, Mich., an old manufacturing community with thousands of vacant buildings and lots.

The land bank there is a countywide entity that was created in 1999 and, over the years, became the primary tool for consolidating and redeveloping the area's vacant property. Flint's land bank also became a national model.

Dan Kildee, the founder of Flint's land bank, endorsed Hoyt's bill Monday, calling it a necessary step in fighting vacancies and foreclosures.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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