Urban Blight, Trustee Lots and a Land Bank: residents in Decatur IL stand at the crossroads

Decatur Illinois Street Scene
Hand-lettered sign advertising a lovely 4-bedroom home for $59,900 in deindustrialized Decatur IL. Photo Credit: Isaac Galewsky
Sandra Lindberg | System Change Not Climate Change | July 31, 2018

When city government attempts to revitalize a city by reducing revenue available to public schools and social services, city tax coffers may grow but the people’s quality of life can actually take a hit. Like other U.S. cities, Decatur government wants to utilize a land bank to “redevelop blighted properties.” The City is already using Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts to “stimulate the economy.” How are these strategies connected and do they help middle- and low-income residents in Decatur? How much democratic control will local residents have over these investment strategies?

Decatur’s Local Picture

A few months ago, actions taken by the City of Decatur seemed to signal a real interest in learning how people here want to revitalize their communities. The City administration initiated the Reimagine Decatur project to gather citizen advice about socio-economic challenges Decatur has faced as corporations downsized and residents struggled with the area’s economic decline.  As the Decatur Herald and Review noted on 6.5.18, “For decades, inner-city neighborhoods such as GM Square, Old King's Orchard, and the newly dubbed Millikin Heights have gone through disinvestment and economic decline.” In an effort to convert empty houses and vacant lots into healthy neighborhoods, the City of Decatur IL is acquiring 720 properties from Macon County. These “trustee lots” include decaying, abandoned buildings and vacant land seized by Macon County when owners failed to pay property taxes. Decatur will pay Macon County $75 for each lot. Details about what will happen to the lots once the City owns them have been slow in coming.

In June, interim City Manager Billy Tyus presented the first report from the Reimagine Decatur Project. Over 250 Decatur residents participating in nine working groups identified major problems in Decatur and offered goals the city should adopt for its revitalization. While Tyus’ report describes the working groups’ ideas, it also takes the liberty of combining nine citizen study groups into three. The report further announces the City’s intention to use a land bank to manage redevelopment plans for the 720 trustee lots, though no details about the land bank’s policies, governance and administration, funding, or oversight are specified. Specifically absent are promises that Decatur residents will have direct representation in the land bank’s financial instrument design or implementation.

The Land Bank as an Instrument for Revitalization?

Details of land banks in operation across the U.S. suggest citizens in Decatur would be wise to demand that the city land bank’s methods adopt democratic and transparent approaches. Without direct public participation in the land bank, the very leaders and systems that brought so much economic pain to Decatur will likely take the lead in attempts to fix the city’s problems.

Page 6 of the City’s “Reimagine Decatur” report 6.4.18 identifies a program theme as Macon County trustee lots, side lots and the “landbanking (concept).” The report states:

Today there are 720 Macon County Trustee Lots throughout Decatur with the numbers not seeing any substantial decline from year to year. Lots are sold through auction once per year and can be difficult to access. Having the City own the properties would allow for:

•  Improved Marketing

•  Targeted Development

•  Residents to find lots near their homes and online 24/7 purchases.

There is also a need to revamp rules related to the city’s side lot program to make accessing lots easier and increasing allowable uses for lots.

While the brief statements about trustee lots and the land bank sound reasonable, the significance of this development tool bears closer examination. Improved marketing for whom? Development targeted to benefit what individuals or groups? And who exactly benefits when potential buyers conduct property transactions online around the clock? Will broader “allowable uses” for lots mean current residents may find themselves living in noisier, dirtier neighborhoods? Will environmental concerns be included in any development plans?

The 6.5.18 article from the Decatur Herald and Review described the 720 trustee lots as “generating no tax revenue for the city.” The article also references Decatur’s drop in population from over 100,000 to just a little over 70,000, “And with a smaller population, city officials still have to maintain the same amount of sewers, lights and roads with fewer residents to pay for it.”  This quandary mirrors struggles in many post-industrial cities, including Detroit--which urges residents in decimated neighborhoods to relocate to housing in more viable parts of the city while “failed neighborhoods” are simply abandoned. In 2017/2018 the City of Decatur will struggle with a $1.2M budget deficit. One of Reimagine Decatur’s goals is increased generation of property tax income. Redeveloping the 720 trustee lots would bring a boost to the City’s property tax revenue.

Decatur’s Problems Started with Labor Struggles; property and housing trouble followed

There is a kind of amnesia surrounding reasons for the City’s trustee lots. Because economic conditions have been deteriorating in Decatur for multiple decades, people have a tendency to forget why some residents stopped paying property taxes and others left town. Without acknowledging how economic downturns contributed to Decatur’s “blight,” current advisors focus on residents and their abilities or deficiencies. It’s important to recognize that multinational and governmental choices preceded the people’s current struggles.

Decatur’s neighborhoods surrounding downtown have been hardest hit by a series of economic blows. In the 1990’s and earlier, workers employed in two multinational corn and soybean processing corporations, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Tate & Lyle (formerly the Staley Corporation), Decatur labor unions attempted to secure better and safer working conditions at these manufacturing plants in the 1990’s. At Tate & Lyle a three-year strike, touched off when a worker died in a storage tank due to lax safety procedures, ended with labor’s defeat. Tate & Lyle imposed on them the most punishing labor contract in the industry. In the years following, ADM and Tate & Lyle relocated many jobs to other Illinois cities, some say to punish workers here for their attempts to challenge corporate policy. In the same years, workers at the Decatur Firestone/Bridgestone plant, also striking for safer working conditions, found that management’s union-busting techniques led to inexperienced workers allowing defective tires to leave the plant. In the uproar that followed highway deaths attributed to the tires, Firestone blamed local union workers and closed the Decatur plant, citing economic reasons for the decision. Decatur’s other major employer, Caterpillar, also down-sized during this time. (See: Staley: the fight for a new American labor movement, by Steven K. Ashby and C.J. Hawking, Urbana and Chicago: U. of Illinois Press, 2009.)

Decatur has lost thousands of jobs in recent decades. From the 1970’s to the 1990’s Decatur’s population dropped from 100,000 to 75,000. In 2013 USAToday reported that Decatur lost 4.3% of its jobs in a single year--and that was before ADM moved its executive employees to northern Illinois. Tate & Lyle has since moved its entire research department to a Chicago suburb. These high-income job losses tore at property values in neighborhoods previously immune to property value decline in poorer parts of the city. Although 2017 brought the addition of a few hundred jobs, high-paying manufacturing jobs have significantly decreased in Decatur. Decatur’s minimum wage stands at $8.25 per hour, not enough to pay off a mortgage. Those workers who could relocate did so. Many residents, however, found they could not sell their homes. A significant number of them simply walked away from the properties, giving rise to the large number of trustee lots the City now hopes to redevelop. Others who lacked the means to relocate have remained in Decatur, surviving with multiple minimum-wage jobs, unable to maintain their homes, and with few chances to improve their situations. 20.1% of families and 25.1% of individuals are below the federal poverty line. 41.5% of those under 18 are in poverty, and 9.8% of those 65 years or older. In 2017 hundreds of families applied for Section 8 or rent-reduced housing. With 19,000 Decatur residents qualifying for public housing or Section 8 vouchers, the City is able to help less than 5,000 people. Each year a lottery is held to determine which families will be granted one of the few rent-reduced units. Adding to this problem is an Illinois law, passed in 1997, that bans rent-control efforts in the state.

Before Revitalize Decatur, the City Embraced a U.S. Trend: Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and a Host of Additional Tax Incentives

Before cities address local housing, they often focus on revitalizing local business, the mantra being that improving business will bring better lives to all. Thanks to reports such as “Rich States, Poor States” (American Legislative Exchange-ALEC), dominant notions of how to revitalize a U.S. city struggling with local and international realities continue to emphasize that business and manufacturing companies need tax incentives in order to survive. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is one economic strategy being used by states and local communities to attract and/or retain local businesses. ALEC’s messaging reaches far more elected officials than research criticizing current austerity recommendations. (See: “Selling Snake Oil to the States: the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Flawed Prescriptions for Prosperity.”)

Current articles describing the history of TIFs do not mention how the incentive first got started. A draft report prepared for the Tennessee legislature describes how from 1942 to 1945 Oak Ridge TN needed to quickly build housing for the thousands of WWII workers employed at the Oak Ridge Uranium Enrichment Facility. Small houses were built for workers and the expectation was that the buildings would be demolished at the end of the war. Instead, the houses were sold to private investors who did not offer them on the market and the structures deteriorated. The first TIF was developed at the urging of then TN Senator Randy McNally. The TIF set the boundaries of the area needing “redevelopment,” froze property taxes there and set up an account where the yearly revenue would be collected to fund redevelopment efforts for 30 years. The beginnings of TIFs can be traced to the nuclear weapons industry and one of its early ill effects in the U.S. urban housing blight.

In searching for the history of TIFs today, Oak Ridge is forgotten and the articles all seem to agree: the first TIF was initiated in California in 1952 to address decaying housing structures. The economic strategy was tied in early years to Housing and Urban Development (HUD) dollars, but when those funds dwindled, states found their own ways to reorganize TIFs. Today Washington D.C. and every state in the U.S. except Arizona has enacted laws governing TIFs. The provisions for them vary from state to state. In California, for instance, TIFs can occur on a specific site, but cannot cover an area. The projects are defined by the California Community Redevelopment Act, last amendment proposed in April, 2018.

TIFs do not raise local property taxes, but they do affect city services. Here’s how:

  • A city identifies an area that state law defines as blighted.

  • Experts study the area and concur that no one is going to redevelop the area without government assistance.

  • Following requirements of state law, a city defines the area and assesses property tax revenue for the area at existing levels. If the area is currently bringing in $50,000 in property tax revenue, city services such as schools, parks, fire and police departments will be funded from their share of that amount.

  • State law defines how long a TIF district can operate--anywhere from 10 to 50 years. In Illinois, most TIF districts function for 23 years, but if needed their lifespan can be extended for another 30. During the life of the TIF, local service departments will receive only the amount of property tax funds they received when the TIF was established--even if redevelopment increases property tax assessments to the area and the City collects more in property tax revenue. The extra dollars are sequestered in a TIF account to be used for TIF redevelopment. Such accounts are controlled by a mayor, a city council and/or a TIF board. The ability for direct citizen involvement in a TIF is very limited.

Along with TIF districts, cities can institute a host of tax incentives to even further entice new or existing businesses into that part of the city. The scope of the tax incentives is formidable, far in excess of any programs a city sets up to help local residents struggling with mortgage payments because of job loss, injury or catastrophic illness.

Public service funds do not keep up with rising costs of social services when TIFs are set up. Here’s a Chicago Reader article’s description of the damage done by TIFs in Chicago:

When the City Council approves a TIF--always with Mayor Daley’s blessing--it freezes the amount of property tax dollars the schools, the parks, the county, and other taxing bodies get from that district for 23 years. If the schools were getting $1000 from a TIF district when it was created, that’s roughly all they’ll get until the TIF expires. Any extra tax money, generated by rising assessments or new development, goes into the TIF fund, which Mayor Daley is free to use largely as he wants.

According to a 7.25.18 Chicago Tribune article one third of the city’s tax dollars end up in 143 special TIF accounts, all controlled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. That’s $660M dollars, half of which ends up in TIFs being used to “improve” wealthy, lakeshore neighborhoods. Meanwhile, schools, fire departments and social service agencies starve for funds. TIFs across the country no longer limit their focus to low-cost housing development.

Illinois municipalities that use TIFs are gambling that, at the end of 23 years, the community will be home to thriving businesses nurtured by the generous tax incentives the city has provided. Unfortunately, such investments do not always materialize. In Illinois TIF districts can be used for manufacturing and retail areas. Just one little known fact shared with this writer by a Midwest administrator: most retail buildings are built to remain sound for twenty years, after which they are expected to require major investment--and often a new TIF--in order for occupants to remain viable. If such 20+ year old businesses do not receive new tax incentives, some go bankrupt and others relocate to a new community willing to provide them the incentives to start again. Unions and university labor writers agree that both ADM and Tate & Lyle Decatur plants were aging structures, even in the 1990’s. When the multinational corporations elected to move aspects of their operations out of Decatur, they received tax incentives from northern Illinois communities only too happy to welcome them. Rather than pursuing tax incentives in Decatur, where the costs of refurbishing an old facility would have been high, ADM and Tate & Lyle set up new sites elsewhere.

The 2017 “Decatur/Macon County Enterprise Zone Process Guide” discusses ten tax incentives: Property Tax Abatement, Sales Tax Exemption, Enterprise Zone Fees,  Boundary Amendments, Tax Credits, Investment Tax Credit, Tax Exemptions, Sales Tax Exemption, Utility Tax Exemption, Open Market Natural Gas Exemption, Manufacturing Machinery and Equipment Sales Tax Exemption, Income Tax Deductions, and Business Financing. On top of tax incentives, in 2013 Decatur had five TIF or Tax Increment Financing districts. In 2017/2018 Decatur approved two more TIF districts.

Examples of the challenges posed to existing businesses by TIFs and tax incentives sometimes become very public. One owner of a retail building in a small business neighborhood located near Decatur’s Millikin University is at war with his tenants. The building’s owner has demanded that this year’s lease include a square foot cost double what the tenants currently pay and further requires that tenants assume all responsibility for any upkeep or repairs needed for the building. The tenants have posted their public complaint about the lease on the wall outside their restaurant, but they were forced to close on 7.29.18. With tax incentives provided by the city, the owner could raze the old building, build a new one that can command higher rents and be “forgiven” property and/or sales taxes for an extended period. Meanwhile, the owners of the very popular neighborhood restaurant The Blue Spoon have announced they are looking for the restaurant’s “new forever home.”

If tax incentives and TIFs are the answer to a rust-belt town’s troubles, Decatur should be thriving. A map of the Enterprise Zone districts, where such enhancements are available, indicates sites in over half the city are eligible for this financial support.

 

 

Decatur’s troubles are shared by a host of US cities. Many of them have chosen to use tax incremental finance districts (TIFs) and enterprise zones to spur city development. 250 municipalities have created 1,300 TIF districts in Illinois alone. Only Arizona has chosen to turn its back on TIFs.

When TIFs and Tax Incentives Are not Enough: Say Hello to the Land Bank and the Land Trust

If TIFs are successful, businesses clamor for a better looking city to attract the best workers. If TIFs fail to attract businesses, cities themselves look for ways to beautify and increase a city’s appeal. The problem with these efforts connects to property values. For-profit developers are loathe to buy and/or develop properties in struggling neighborhoods. Enter the land bank and the land trust, the first financial structure designed to move deteriorated properties back into the market, and the second a way to reduce development costs by separating land ownership from building ownership. The key to making land banks or land trusts of benefit to residents hinges on citizen activism that demands a significant degree of transparency and democratic representation for either of these economic projects.

Housing details related to Decatur’s economic health pose challenges. The Reimagine Decatur report provides a map of the 720 trustee lots the City is acquiring. A majority are located in modest or low-income neighborhoods. The pale yellow rectangles are the trustee lots:

 

And Decatur housing challenges are ongoing. In early July this writer checked listings on a foreclosure site. That day 43 properties were listed for sale as foreclosures, and over 40 more were listed as pre-foreclosure homes. If homeowners and banks cannot sell these, they may join the list of trustee lots held by Macon County. When the number of county or city held properties becomes difficult to manage, a city will advocate for a new economic instrument: the land bank.

As of 2018 there are 170 land banks in the US. The largest number are located in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, but there are three land banks in Illinois, and others in Wisconsin, Indiana and Missouri. All of these states contain cities in which manufacturing industries have declined. In an effort to cope with the real estate blight that accompanies a decrease in manufacturing, many cities begin by organizing community study meetings just like the Reimagine Decatur effort. After carefully noting what local citizens want for their neighborhoods, the cities push for land banks that, supposedly, will help to get the properties redeveloped.


Land Banks in US

When municipal leaders use the term land bank to describe one strategy they hope to employ, most US citizens have little idea what such a program promises or entails. The goal of many land banks is to move vacant lots and abandoned buildings back onto the tax rolls. Usually, the municipality receives the right from the state to purchase properties seized by the county because the owner fails to pay property taxes. A difficult to access tax auction system, held once a year for these properties, leads to either properties bought predominately by speculative land developers--or properties not bought at all. Macon County, recognizing its inability to dispose of 720 properties it calls trustee lots has agreed to sell them to Decatur for $75 each. Before this agreement was set up, Macon County had offered the properties at its yearly land auction, requiring an opening bid of $600. The majority of county properties were not moving. It might seem incredibly altruistic of Decatur to volunteer to take control of all these city lots. Many will require mowing, trash removal or the demolition of buildings beyond repair. The city claims it is adopting this strategy to restore decaying neighborhoods to health, improve safety and encourage local development.

In Interim Manager Billy Tyus’ report to the Decatur City Council on the Reimagine Decatur meetings, he evinced a gently apologetic tone when he talked about the economic difficulties some Decatur citizens face. “Believe it or not,” Tyus said, “some Decatur residents just don’t know where to look for a job.” (Comments made by Tyus at City Council meeting on 6.4.18. For minutes go to: http://www.decaturil.gov/mayor-and-council/council-meetings/) The claim was followed by a description of training programs the project would recommend to help residents secure gainful employment. The implication here is that the inadequacies of local residents kept them from finding jobs and housing.

What city officials never admit is that the economic systems, interacting with each other, brought this urban blight into existence. 21st century capitalism repeatedly demonstrates its inability to bring prosperity--except for a few at the top. Economic inequality worsens year by year. Never mentioned are the corporate taxing strategies that failed to benefit the city and its residents as planned. Never acknowledged is how local citizens who lost jobs with those corporations were required to assume all financial risk imposed on them by the city, banks and employers. The connection between corporate ruthlessness and citizens’ being forced to sell their homes at great loss, or lose them entirely, never comes up when urban blight is discussed. Also never placed front and center is the reality that the very government, corporate and financial interests responsible for failed economic policies often sit on advisory boards of land banks.

The Center for Community Progress, a not-for-profit with the mission of “building a future in which vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties no longer exist,” prepared research reports for Rockford IL and Indianapolis IN, two cities struggling with abandoned and vacant properties. The documents proudly state that every “stakeholder” interviewed for the research project is listed in an appendix, but the appendix tellingly reveals how narrowly the cities construed the concept of “stakeholder.” The Indianapolis list of interviewees includes two representatives from Indiana Landmarks, one from Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, and two from Renew Indianapolis. The remaining 29 people interviewed are either city or county administrators or representatives of realtor or development organizations. Nine alone are employed in City Code Enforcement, a preponderance that may signal the city’s desire to expedite the process of condemning and tearing down buildings.

Appearing before City Council, interim City Manager Billy Tyus reported on the City’s desire to establish a land bank as if how and what the strategy will involve is widely understood. Unfortunately, laws governing the creation of TIFs and land banks vary significantly from state to state. In some states, municipal land banks form relationships with banks that agree to provide low-interest loans to buyers. In some cases, the homes revert to bank ownership if homeowners fall behind in their payments--and unlike with traditional home loans, mortgage renegotiations are not permitted. Decatur residents need to have a role in the design of a land bank in order to reduce chances for such punitive rules.

Some cities in the U.S. have such high housing costs that not-for-profit organizations have created financial structures called land trusts. A group of nonprofits and/or investors buy vacant lots and set up incorporating documents that require the trust to retain ownership of the land even if an individual trust member chooses to sell. The trust then offers to lease the land at a low and controlled rate to people who wish to buy and refurbish an existing building or to build an entirely new building. The residents own the buildings and lease the land from the trust for, on average, 99 years. The agreement between trust and homeowner is intended to prevent land speculation. The hope is that the land trust will slow down increases in homeownership and rental costs in an expensive market.

Community-Wealth.org, a not-for-profit that researches and makes recommendations about municipal economic problems, includes land banks in its recommendations. It also extols the virtues of land trusts.


https://community-wealth.org/strategies/panel/clts/index.html

Community-Wealth.org would like to see many more land trusts in the US and recommends that a third of board members come from the communities where the trust developments are located. The combination of land trusts with municipal land banks can be an effective way to increase the amount of citizen participation in property and housing plans. Unfortunately, some cities resist attempts to form land trusts. For those that do create them, land trusts can look surprisingly similar in leadership to land banks.

The City of Chicago has created the Chicago Community Land Trust:

The CCLT is a non-profit corporation, with a board of directors that is appointed by the Mayor with Chicago City Council consent. Meetings are held at City Hall, 121 N. La Salle St., #1003A. The Land Trust operates citywide and is administered and staffed by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development. Once the CCLT acquires 200 homes, one-third of the Board will consist of CCLT homeowners.

Notice the final sentence in the Trust’s description, “Once the CCLT acquires 200 homes, one third of the Board will consist of CCLT homeowners.” 200 homes, not 200 units is the threshold after which the one-third community representation promise kicks in. Until then, the land trust administered by the City of Chicago offers a very limited number of citizens the chance to participate in the trust’s decision-making process. For Chicago at least, the land trust seems to mirror a land bank’s determination to provide affordable housing as traditional power brokers determine the project should be organized. While these homes and units sell and rent below market costs, the average cost for a 2-bedroom apartment in Chicago is $2,400. The median price for a Chicago home is $227,000 and the median cost for a rental unit is $1,800. Prices rose over 3% from 2017 to 2018 and are expected to rise 4.5% next year. The minimum wage in Chicago stands at $12.00. Even a below-market housing unit is going to be difficult to afford in Chicago.

Land trusts are not all the same. Some focus on creating rental units on land owned by the trust. Others focus on building homes. And the degree of citizen participation in the trusts varies, too. It is possible for activist and non-governmental entities to form coalitions that create land trusts. In Philadelphia the Community Justice Land Trust as first envisioned by the Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP) has built 36 rental units since 2006 and plans to build 75 more. The project attempts to provide affordable rental housing in a neighborhood adjacent to Temple University where rents are skyrocketing. WCRP administers the trust, but an advisory committee and board comprised of local residents and other stakeholders ensures that decisions are made with the community’s wishes guiding the project. Philadelphia is also home to a land bank significantly shaped by activist efforts to ensure that citizens have significant representation in the land bank’s design and implementation.

When thinking about these two property management instruments, land banks can be seen as a way to manage and repurpose vacant land or derelict properties owned by a municipality, while land trusts can address in a small way the need to create more affordable housing within challenged urban areas.

Difference between Land Banks and Land Trusts from City to City

Examining the differences between cities’ efforts to cope with derelict properties and housing issues can be enlightening. Philadelphia’s approach to both land banks and land trusts seems to offer a significant level of direct citizen participation. That development can be attributed to the tireless activism of social justice organizations that had been operating from some years before either the land bank or land trust ideas were pursued. With regard to the Philadelphia land bank, local activists have admitted their successes required the coalition of citizen groups to compromise with the mayor and city council, who preferred to retain ultimate control of the bank. Instead tireless activism for three years got city government to agree that citizen representatives would share in significant aspects of the decision-making process. Activists have written a guide called “Winning a Land Bank We Can Trust,” that describes the key tactics used to secure effective citizen representation in the redevelopment process.

Unlike in Philadelphia, Bethlehem PA, once the leader in steel manufacturing, uses a top-down process for its land bank. Bethlehem is a rustbelt city approximately the same size as Decatur IL. Its racial profile is almost 40% Hispanic, black, Asian and multi-ethnic. Decatur’s non-white population is just under 20%. Both cities thrived for many years as manufacturing centers. And Bethlehem Steel was as famous for its distrust of unions and labor organizing as ADM continues to be. It could be useful for Decatur residents to see what a city like theirs designs to address derelict properties.

Bethlehem PA thrived when Bethlehem Steel was the leading steel manufacturer in the US and, for a time, in the world. With the advent of diversified manufacturing and competition from overseas, Bethlehem Steel’s heyday ended and the city’s economic challenges began. Today part of Bethlehem Steel’s plant is owned by Sands Casino. Gambling interests have taken the place of steel. (See: “The Life, Death and Soul of Bethlehem Steel,” by Michael Kennedy, preliminary draft published 7.25.13.)

Bethlehem leaders are pretty direct about their goals. The City’s Redevelopment Authority focuses on “blight remediation,” code enforcement, stabilizing property values and returning blighted properties to “productive use,” i.e. generating property tax revenue. In 2017 the city and the RDA began its “blight study” led by a corporation called The Reinvestment Group. All planning was based on a detailed property value market study of the city. Though the “Blight Report” emphasizes that Bethlehem is beginning to address its deteriorating property problems much earlier than most cities have chosen to do, buried in the report is the reality that 45% of the vacant or deteriorating properties are located in “ethnically diverse” and “low-income” neighborhoods. Of seven market areas identified in the blight report, the two with the majority of blighted properties are home to 25% of the black population. The plan outlined by city leaders seems to focus on various punitive measures such as code enforcement and fines as well as the traditional development incentives of TIFs, tax abatements, and a number of loan funds. The Bethlehem study is the first document found by this writer that acknowledges the close connection between some of the business development tools and land bank initiatives, a candor this writer appreciates. If Decatur administrators adopt strategies similar to those used in Bethlehem, local residents will have little to say about Decatur’s revitalization.

When cities quickly push through city ordinance changes and land bank structures that benefit city government and developers more than the people struggling in these communities, citizens find out too late that they should be advocating for representation in revitalization efforts. Activists then must play catch-up, demanding that newly established financial strategies be changed to allow for their participation. The stories of such efforts can be followed in local papers and on activist websites. Citizen groups in some towns with land banks are less than satisfied with the way the economics of urban and land renewal are working out for them. In Chicago the People’s Institute For Housing Justice advocates for the right of all people to decent housing and decries current eviction processes which are now handled by private, for-profit companies. In southeastern Wisconsin 3,000 acres have been designated as “blighted” by the Mt. Pleasant Community Development Authority. The residents there are fighting to keep their homes from being taken from them so that a FoxConn television assembly plant can have the land. In Cleveland, which has 8,000 vacant and blighted properties, rehabbing them is cost prohibitive and yet the city cannot obtain the $8M needed to demolish properties that pose a danger to neighborhoods. In Michigan, the Detroit Land Bank attempting to dispose of 100,000 vacant or decaying properties, has been criticized for its rising costs and questionable bidding practices. Sometimes amidst all the clamor, a happy story emerges. This May in Charlottesville SC citizen oversight of the City Council forced the establishment of a land bank to be postponed until more citizen participation can be written into the land bank’s structure.

What Happens Next: Politics and Activism Will Play Their Roles

A city’s land bank will be only as democratic and transparent as its state laws, municipal governing structures, and business/government partnerships will allow--unless local activists organize and demand an empowered role in the vacant and abandoned property process. Land banks and land trusts, as may be clear from this article, remain largely unfamiliar to most city residents. Existing power structures rely on that ignorance to quickly push through methods that will be to their liking, especially city ordinance revisions and land bank design. The only answer to such haste within a market driven system is community education and activism. Citizen powered activism will be needed until an ecosocialist system replaces capitalism’s focus on housing for profit with an equitable housing strategy.

Given recent electoral developments in Decatur and Macon County, the resolve may exist here to demand transparent and democratic approaches to trustee lots and their redevelopment. In the spring primary, a well established county official lost his election bid to a younger, black police sergeant. Tony “Chubby” Brown (DEM) defeated the current Macon County Sheriff, John L. Butts. Two progressive representatives sit on City Council and another progressive stands a strong chance of retaining her County Board seat. Democrats represent Macon County at the state and federal level, and though the county resoundingly rejected Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, the result seems to signal more a desire for significant change than an endorsement of Trump. People in Decatur saw Clinton as a Washington insider. Ten years ago Macon County was a blue county and its switch to red has been gradual.

On the activist front, citizen involvement is energetic. This writer participated in an effort to prevent the logging of 141 city-owned mature hardwood trees (the trees are still standing!) and now leads a reorganized group called Sustain Our Natural Areas (www.sona-maconcounty.org), which is working with city, county, park and federal organizations to promote biodiversity, habitat preservation and restoration and environmentally responsible approaches to local land development. Recently awarded a $2,000 grant by the Prairie Rivers Network and People’s Climate Movement, SONA is developing a coalition of Decatur and Macon County environmental and social justice organizations that will march on September 8th as part of the U.S. RISE for Climate, Jobs & Justice events on that day. SONA is also organizing a candidate forum focused on environmental issues to precede this fall’s election. Additionally, local residents are publicly speaking out about the trustee lots, offering opinions and information at City Council meetings, and writing to local papers and local officials. People here also have not forgotten that Tate & Lyle, ADM, Caterpillar and Firestone/Bridgestone cannot be relied upon to put the City’s and the citizen’s needs before corporate profits. In the 1990’s labor protests here drew crowds as large as 7,000. The challenge is to inspire that kind of activism for the negative aftermath of multinational corporate actions, too.

Regarding trustee lots, Decatur residents already negatively affected by decaying properties and vacant lots in their neighborhoods need to demand decision-making powers equal to those enjoyed by more traditionally defined stakeholders of these lots. So-called government and business experts contributed to economic conditions that led to corporate tax giveaways, job loss, and foreclosures. Experts who designed policies that brought suffering and loss to Decatur citizens should not be granted the sole right to define how effective or good redevelopment of blighted properties will proceed. Especially troubling is the possibility that the very banks who were given government bailout dollars, even as they continued to foreclose on local homes, could become the lending institutions handling the low-interest loans for the blighted property redevelopment program. The people of Decatur and their need for affordable, safe, inviting and environmentally sound housing should lead any redevelopment process for decaying buildings and trustee lots.

Sandra Lindberg is a member of System Change Not Climate Change, and the Democratic Socialists of America-Springfield chapter. Her articles have appeared in Solidarity’s Against the Current and Op Ed News.  In the 1990’s she founded No New Nukes, which built a coalition of groups to stop construction of a second Exelon nuclear reactor in Clinton IL. Currently, she chairs Sustain Our Natural Areas (SONA), and serves as board member with the Macon County Community Environmental Council.