Ingham County Land Bank: A thriving national model for government partnerships

So, what does a land bank actually do?

“It’s an economic development enterprise that tries to organize county government’s approach to development -- from human development to economic development -- that buys residential and commercial properties that need love, and gives them that love so they can be utilized again,” explains Eric Schertzing, Ingham County treasurer and chairman at the Ingham County Land Bank.

You see, a land bank is a government entity that works to support growth and investment within a community. How? The Ingham County Land Bank takes tax reverted, purchased, donated and unclaimed land and strives to put it to productive use more rapidly than may have been possible otherwise. As its website puts it, to help protect areas from falling into decline, the land bank will buy, renovate and resell multiple properties in a designated area which will allow the properties to become attractive purchases to those who want to become a homeowner.

In layman’s terms, they take run-down nasty structures and try to put them back on the tax rolls and help stop them from dragging down a whole neighborhood. These might be commercial properties, like the NEO Center and Kincaid Henry headquarters or Rizzi Designs new home, but more often than not, they’re residential properties.

Home is where the Land Bank is

Steph Strickling isn’t a Michigan native. Love brought her here from her native Baltimore, and she wasn’t exactly happy about it.

“I spent the first couple of years wishing I could go home.” But something about Lansing got under her skin. “All of a sudden, it seemed people started taking pride, places started popping up all over the place, great restaurants and shops. My mind started to change. People wanted to be here. Now I’m one of them.”

As an East Coaster and life-long renter, though, Steph wasn’t sure about homeownership. Enter several Ingham County Land Bank properties.

One of the land bank’s tactics for neighborhood change is keeping housing prices low and providing a variety of purchasing options, from traditional home sales to land contracts and lease-to-own.

“I’d never owned a home before and it wasn’t something I expected to be able to do at this age.” The affordable price of the land bank homes, and the fact that they required no renovations made it a possibility for Steph and her now-husband. “It’s such a comforting feeling knowing it’s my house.”

A unique partnership

While many land banks work to help neighborhoods, Ingham County is different in its size, scope, commitment to quality and a unique partnership. According to Eric, while many land banks throughout the state may acquire a dozen or so properties a year, the Ingham County Land Bank takes in hundreds, and has nearly 1,000 properties in its inventory for sale.

How is this a good thing? While they are on the market, these homes are clean, maintained and secure so even while a neighborhood waits for a permanent resident, the house is taken care of and no longer an eyesore. The land bank also leverages high quality materials, focusing on what a buyer would want, and green -- often LEED certified - renovations.

But a big part of what’s truly unique about the Ingham County Land Bank is its relationship with the City of Lansing.
“One of the things that differentiates our approach is really we’re the model for Michigan in the partnership and close working relationship between the County Land Bank Authority and the largest city in our county, the City of Lansing,” Eric explains.
“It’s more than just dealing with derelict properties,” adds Bob Johnson, director of planning and neighborhood development for the City of Lansing. “We’re looking to reinvigorate and re-energize neighborhoods. It’s a daunting task and there are tight time frames. The entrepreneurial structure of the Land Bank was the perfect structure to help us. We had to be nimble and quick and we hit the ground running. We truly are looked upon as being a model for the state and country.”

Together, the two focus on the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a major effort to target and improve neighborhoods that have suffered greatly from foreclosures and abandoned properties.     

At the core of what they’re trying to achieve is creating places where people want to be, or placemaking as it’s often called.
“We don’t just look at it that we’re fixing up a home and moving on,” explains Bob. “We look at architecture of the neighborhood. We look at energy efficiency.  We look at walkability, bikeability, transportation. When placemaking happens, you can’t quite define it. You just know it’s there.”

But blighted properties are a hindrance to quality of place. “You have to get rid of the things that are standing in the way,” he says. “You have these improvements and design issues that’s unique to a site. It’s not just one size fits all. Cool cities are about people getting together, sharing ideas -- positive ideas -- moving their communities forward.”

Moving the Land Bank forward

The Ingham County Land Bank has gone from one staff person to 20 and from 23 properties in 2005 to now holding nearly 1,000. As funding shifts in future years, however, the land bank will continue to evolve.

“There are more challenges to try to hold all of this stuff together,” says Eric. “The magnitude of the federal resources that have helped are going to dwindle and that’s just the way it is. The problem hasn’t gone away. Tax foreclosures this year were up, not down. So we’re going to have to get more creative.”

The partners are committed to helping the land bank thrive. “This process of land banks being an economic development tool, I think will profoundly alter the relationships of government entities.”

“I knew that there had to be a level of trust and collaboration between the local unit of government and their authorities,” adds Bob. “And there certainly is here. Property is power.”

And that power is being put to use in Greater Lansing to create stronger, greener and more beautiful communities so businesses, and homeowners like Steph, can thrive as well.

Kate Tykocki is the interim news editor and a freelance writer for Capital Gains. She geeks jazz hands, knitting and theatre. You can also follow her at @katetykocki.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography


Step and Mathew Strickling and their Land Bank home

Eric Schertzing at a Land Bank project

A Land Bank property

A home you can check in at, the Strickling's

Photos © Dave Trumpie
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