A big moment coming for land bank

June 22, 2012
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The Kent County Land Bank Authority will learn this week if it can take possession of 66 tax-foreclosed properties before the county holds its annual public auction in August.

To get the properties, the land bank has to buy the parcels from the county for the unpaid taxes of $495,231. County commissioners will decide Thursday whether to authorize the sale. The county’s Finance Committee recommended last week that commissioners should allow the sale to go forward, which would become the largest transaction the fledgling agency has completed.

Of the 66, the land bank plans to hold on to 45 properties. Most are residential but a handful are zoned commercial. Many are in Grand Rapids, but more than a few are located north of the city. The land bank authority will use funds from a low-interest revolving loan the Grand Rapids Community Foundation has made available. Then it will reimburse the foundation with the proceeds it gets from selling the properties.

The other 21 sites will be sold to nonprofit housing developers, such as Habitat for Humanity of Kent County and the New Development Corp., for renovation and resale. The developers will pay the land bank the unpaid tax bills for the properties, which range from $477 to nearly $17,000.

“Most of the properties on our list are blighted properties,” said County Treasurer Kenneth Parrish, who also founded the land bank and chairs the authority. “In general, the land bank will work to upgrade the properties and then sell them.”

Parrish said the agency will accept bids from nonprofit and for-profit contractors who are interested in working with the land bank to make the necessary improvements on the properties it owns. “The land bank takes the low bid,” said Parrish.

As county treasurer, Parrish directs the annual public auction, and he said that many of the residential properties bought at the sale are kept in their blighted status and are rented as sub-standard housing. But KCLBA Executive Director Dave Allen pointed out that anyone who buys a parcel from the land bank has to agree to improve it.

“When it comes to contractors, we’re working very closely with the Home Builders Association. Every single property we have is listed with the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors,” said Allen.

A key property of the 66 the land bank wants to buy is at 1205 W. Fulton in Grand Rapids. The parcel is a highly contaminated site that was home to a gas station. Rylee’s Ace Hardware wants to clean up the site for its fourth store and hopes to buy the property from the land bank for $65,761, the unpaid tax amount. The Grand Rapids Brownfield Redevelopment Authority approved the project recently; city commissioners will hold a public hearing on it July 10.

Other key properties are 19 tax-foreclosed parcels in the Wabasis Shore Development, once a condo project in Greenville. The land bank wants to purchase those for $33,000, the total unpaid taxes on the lots. Allen said the authority has partnered with Sable Homes of Rockford, a home builder, to redevelop the properties.

As for the remainder of the properties, Allen said the land bank is working with the cities of Rockford, Wyoming, Grandville, Grand Rapids, Cedar Springs and Walker, and the townships of Algoma, Plainfield, Spencer, Caledonia and Oakfield.

“I do appreciate that you’re all over the county with your work,” said Commissioner Dick Bulkowski.

“Every once in a while, government thinks outside of the box and gets something right,” said Commissioner Tom Antor.

“I think it’s very important that we move ahead and fix these houses and eliminate some blight,” said Commissioner Jack Boelema, who serves on the Finance Committee with Antor and Bulkowski.

Not all commissioners feel so strongly about the land bank. A few have said the authority competes with the private sector, and to keep the 66 properties out of the public-auction process punishes for-profit real estate firms and developers that might like a chance to buy those parcels.

Commissioner Jim Saalfeld, though, said he has been told just the opposite.

“They view the program as very positive,” he said of GRAR and HBA. “But at the last board meeting, we had a discussion about the bank competing with private industries.”

“We’re not trying to exclude the private sector. We’re trying to include the private sector,” Parrish said last week.

Allen agreed. “In everything we do, we’re trying to include the private sector, not hinder it.”

The annual sale of tax-foreclosed properties is set for Aug. 16 at DeVos Place. The county foreclosed on 335 properties this year, the most in the past six years. In 2007, a few months before the nation’s housing market crashed, only 35 were sent to auction.

Allen estimated that 1,080 properties in the county will go through the tax-foreclosure process in 2015, if the rise in tax foreclosures continues at its current pace. In comparison, 915 went through the process from 2007 through this year.

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