A former board member of the Kingston Land Bank — a nonprofit that works closely with the city to acquire, rehabilitate and market vacant homes — has resigned. In her resignation letter and remarks to the Kingston Times Callie Jayne described a dysfunctional operation that has made little meaningful progress towards its goals and has yet to actually take title to a single property — or even formally incorporate as a nonprofit — in the 18 months it has been in existence.
The Kingston Land Bank was launched in 2018 with the mission of buying vacant homes held by the city for back taxes and returning them to the tax rolls. In its conception, the land bank would operate as a nonprofit working in close collaboration with the city. City Community Development Director Brenna Robinson was appointed as its executive director; other city employees were assigned part time to serve as staff. Mayor Steve Noble, a strong proponent of the concept, said the land bank would provide an alternative to the traditional auctioning off of city-held properties to the highest bidder, one that would stabilize neighborhoods, help city residents transition from rental housing to their own homes and slow the tide of gentrification.
In October 2018 an anonymous donor working with Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley made a gift of $3.1 million to allow the bank to pay off back taxes on 36 city-held parcels ranging from vacant lots to single-family homes to commercial properties. Later that year, the Common Council authorized the transfer of the properties to the land bank.
Jayne, who is the executive director of the social justice group Rise Up Kingston, joined the board in late 2018. Jayne said she was initially excited to work with the new organization as it began developing policies and putting structures in place to allow it to begin acquiring and marketing properties. But, Jayne said, that excitement turned to frustration as she encountered an organization where professional staff, stretched thin between their regular city jobs and responsibilities to the land bank, struggled to perform tasks as basic as setting up email accounts. Jayne said the lack of staff capacity often forced the board to take rushed votes without sufficient information in order to meet important deadlines. In other cases, deadlines were missed entirely.
“Month-to-month things were just not being completed by staff,” said Jayne. “Then there would be these rushed moments of, ‘We need to get this done right now,’ even though we didn’t have all of the information we needed.”
Jayne said her issues with the land bank extended to the board’s deliberations on important policy issues. Jayne served on a three-member committee charged with developing a policy on how the land bank would acquire and dispose of properties once they were ready for sale. In that capacity, she said, she and another committee member advocated for a “permanent affordability” clause that would set limits on the resale of homes acquired from the land bank to prevent profiteering. Jayne said the board as a whole ignored the committee’s recommendations and moved ahead with a vote to adopt a policy that she said was poorly fleshed out, lacking nuts-and-bolts criteria necessary to actually advance towards the goal of taking title to and eventually marketing properties. The vote on the disposition policy was followed by the issuance of a press release claiming that the land bank would begin taking title to the properties in the next eight weeks, a timeline that Jayne said was plainly unworkable.
“It was a joke,” said Jayne. “They passed a disposition policy with no procedures in place, just to demonstrate to the community that there was some progress being made. But all they did was pass a piece of paper.”
Jayne said her issues with the land bank came to a head in November, after Noble was elected to a second term, when the board convened a meeting in an effort to get answers about the bank’s future direction. At the meeting, Jayne said, Noble laid out his plan to create a new position in city government — “Director of Housing” — who would take over the post of land bank executive director. Jayne said Noble made it clear at the meeting that the city, not the board, would remain in charge of staffing the nonprofit. At the same meeting, Jayne said, she and other board members learned that land bank staff had not filed paperwork to formally incorporate as a 501(c)(3) non-profit — a failure that would likely prevent the group from accessing any of the $3.1 million gift from the anonymous donor. The board also learned that the cost of acquiring the 36 properties was likely to go up based on water, maintenance and other costs currently borne by city taxpayers.
“We were just not moving forward,” said Jayne of her decision to resign this week. “And I don’t have to be a decoration.”
Mayor: These things take time
In an interview this week, Noble defended the land bank’s progress while conceding that the nonprofit had yet to take title to any of the properties authorized by the Common Council and funded by the gift. Noble said the board had held off taking title to the properties to allow time to obtain insurance, put a maintenance plan in place and coordinate with Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley to access the funding.
“All of that stuff just takes time,” said Noble. “And we don’t want to acquire these properties and take responsibility for them before we have all of our ducks in a row.”
Noble declined to answer specific criticisms laid out by Jayne in her Feb. 23 letter of resignation.
“I have lots of people who decide not to continue serving on boards. I don’t want to go point by point with her on what happened or didn’t happen,” said Noble. “I appreciate the work she did on our behalf.”