The Kingston Land Bank was launched in 2018 with the mission of buying vacant homes held by the city for back taxes, renovating them, and selling them to families at an affordable price and thereby returning the properties to the tax rolls. Since then, the need for affordable housing has only grown, but the land bank’s progress has been slow. It was unable to find buyers for the first three properties it planned to sell earlier this year and recent meetings of the Common Council have seen city elected officials considering reducing the number of properties it would transfer to the non-profit and questioning if its mission still makes sense.
The Common Council is expected to vote next month on whether to remove 12 properties from the original 2018 resolution that transferred the 36 to the land bank in lieu of back taxes, primarily because most are vacant lots with zoning issues that would make them unsuitable for building or renovating upon. The city would then put the 12 properties on the market or find other uses for them, Mayor Steve Noble said.
A further four properties are also under review and may also prove unusable by the land bank due to their condition.
Earlier this month, the Common Council voted 7-2 to move forward on the sale of a house at 124-126 Franklin Street to the land bank for $19,399, which prompted a discussion that called into question the legitimacy of the nonprofit by two of the council’s members, Alderman Patrick O’Reilly (non-enrolled, Ward 7) and Alderwoman Michele Hirsch (D-Ward 9). O’Reilly suggested that the real estate boom across the Hudson Valley was making it difficult to justify the renovation of foreclosed-upon property by the land bank as a means of combating the affordable housing crisis when the proceeds from the sale of suddenly valuable properties could be used to tackle the issue in other ways.
“The land bank, geez, that didn’t turn out the way we thought it would, did it?” O’Reilly said. “It was a great idea, but guess what? Property values have gone skyrocketing. They’re going to put people into $200,000 homes that are probably worth $400,000 now…Who can afford taxes on $400,000 homes? The land bank isn’t as necessary as it used to be…Maybe it’s not such a great idea anymore…Could we use that money, the market value for that property, for better use to house people in affordable housing?”
Alderman Tony Davis (D-Ward 6) said he doesn’t believe the city is positioned to create affordable housing on its own, and that selling the property on the open market wasn’t a guarantee that it would be developed.
“(The Franklin Street property) sat dormant for over 20 years,” Davis said. “If we sell it to a higher bidder the property could just sit there dormant. It doesn’t mean they have to do anything with it. It doesn’t mean they have to make it into affordable housing, or they could just tear it down and leave it as an empty lot.”
Hirsch said the city had options other than selling to the land bank or putting properties up for bid, citing organizations like Ulster YouthBuild, an organization founded in 1994 to train out-of-school, low-income young people between the ages of 16 and 24 in construction skills while they simultaneously study for a New York State High School Equivalency test; the houses renovated by Ulster YouthBuild are then sold to low-income families. Hirsch added that the land bank has no track record, and when it put its first three renovated properties up for sale, it received no qualified bids.
Daniel Kanter, chairman of the board of the Kingston City Land Bank said he recognized that his organization had yet to make an impact in the community, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t soon.
“The land bank had a rocky beginning,” Kanter said. “This is not a secret…The matter at hand is simply that we are a non-profit, fully funded to do this work with similar projects already underway, who can guarantee the result of this home being fully renovated, back on the tax rolls, owner-occupied at an affordable price with enforcement mechanisms to keep it affordable in the long term.”
Already renovated by the land bank and seeking new owners are properties at 64 Van Buren St., 248 Main St. and 174 Hasbrouck Ave., with the organization announcing on Tuesday, May 11 that it was changing the qualifications to allow more families to become eligible for consideration.
“With the generous support of funders, the Kingston City Land Bank is carefully renovating each interior and exterior detail of each property,” read a press release posted to the organization’s website. “This includes new HVAC systems, new bathrooms and kitchens, exterior rehabilitation, and landscaping. At the completion of construction, each home will be move-in ready. Homes are only sold after construction is complete and the homes are ready for occupancy, but you must apply now to be considered to purchase them. We expect the move-in date to be this year for these homes.”
The application window will close on Saturday, July 10. For information on the criteria and application process for each of the three properties, visit the Kingston City Land Bank website, kingstoncitylandbank.org.