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Land banks a good idea Buffalo, Falls can use this new tool to cut down on sky-high vacancy rates

Legislation that could help ease the crisis in vacant housing in Buffalo and Niagara Falls has just passed both houses. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo shouldn't waste any time taking pen to paper and signing it.

Sponsored by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, and Sen. David Valesky, D-Oneida, the legislation would allow cities and counties in the state to create land banks. Those land banks would be given the task of converting vacant, abandoned or tax-delinquent properties into productive use -- either redeveloped or resold. Vacant structures would either be repurposed to become useful again, or demolished so that cleared land is available for renewal or resale, possibly to a neighbor.

This legislation is about turning liabilities into assets in neighborhoods with few signs of life or ideas for renewal. Buffalo has the highest vacancy rate in the state, and Niagara Falls is not far behind. Other upstate cities and even first-ring suburbs are home to more and more abandoned properties.

The land bank idea worked in Flint, Mich., a city often associated with the term, "downtrodden." Dan Kildee, founder of the Flint land bank, wrote about its success in a May 2 Another Voice column.

His enthusiasm for the program, enacted in 1999 and improved in 2003, is clear. And for good reason. More than 1,300 families have been saved from foreclosure, dozens of houses have been rehabilitated and hundreds of derelict structures have been demolished.

Now add in the ability to collect taxes and fees on the once-abandoned properties and the land bank ends up generating revenue -- in Flint's case, according to Kildee, a $109 million return on the county's initial land bank investment of $3.5 million.

Now, that's real money upstate New York municipalities could use.

Hoyt and Valesky have done their homework in trying to emulate the success of the Flint land bank, and believe it can happen here. This legislation goes a long way to fixing a long-standing problem of blight. Cuomo should sign it and Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, who has opposed previous versions of the legislation, should be ready to implement it.

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