Over the years, Omaha has found it necessary at times to get creative and set up specialized organizations to tackle major public needs.
A good example was creation of the Airport Authority in 1959 to provide Eppley Airfield with professional management and strategic vision. Another came in 2000, when the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority (MECA) was set up to oversee the city’s convention center and arena.
Now, with approval by the Legislature (on a 47-0 final vote) and Gov. Dave Heineman’s signature, Omaha soon will have another major new institution, called a land bank, to oversee the redevelopment of vacant, tax-delinquent property and return it to productive use.
This new organization is designed to address one of the city’s most daunting neighborhood and economic development needs. A study done last year on this issue for two of the Legislature’s committees found that east of 72nd Street, the number of vacant properties in Omaha exceeded 13,000.
As we noted in January, Omaha’s dilapidated abandoned houses raise major health and safety concerns and undercut neighborhood property values. These structures provide a site for prostitutes and drug dealers, copper wire thefts and fires.
Former Mayor Jim Suttle and the City Council, to their credit, invested additional funds and resources to demolish dilapidated structures and increase housing code enforcement. But the number of vacant properties far exceeds the city’s current ability to address the challenge.
The city lists more than 460 dilapidated houses on its demolition list, for example, yet this year the city has funds to tear down only around 70.
A stronger, different approach is needed to make a greater dent on this issue, and that’s where the land bank comes in.
To convert these properties into marketable, affordable housing would provide enormous benefits to individuals and to Omaha as a whole, as the city promotes stable neighborhoods at the same time that it reduces sources of blight and crime.
It’s no wonder that both the Omaha city government and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce made creation of a land bank a priority for the just-concluded legislative session.
Over the past year, State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha has done an excellent job of bringing together the various parties — including the banking and real estate sectors, Habitat for Humanity, the Chamber of Commerce and more — to work out consensus on how to structure the land bank.
Mello made the land bank proposal, Legislative Bill 97, his priority bill, and it enjoyed strong support among lawmakers. Four other states so far have approved such a concept.
Omaha’s land bank will have huge responsibilities. It will be empowered to buy, manage and develop vacant and tax-delinquent properties, including assembling them into larger parcels that could be sold for new housing, businesses or parks. It will not levy taxes or have power of eminent domain, but it will be able to borrow money and issue bonds.
It’s crucial, then, that the land bank’s volunteer board and its staff operate with professional competence and integrity in the fashion of the Airport Authority and MECA. For example:
>> Efficiency. As we noted in April, “the key challenge is finding adequate capital to purchase properties on a scale that can make a real difference.” Funding for the land bank can include funds from the city government; state and federal grants; philanthropic donations; and half of the property tax revenues for the first five years after a property is redeveloped.
The land bank will need to use its funds soundly and responsibly in the same way that, for example, the Airport Authority directs its spending to practical uses for Eppley’s direct benefit.
>> Transparency. Given the powers at its disposal and its role in the community, the land bank will need to make openness with the public a key in all its operations.
>> Community input. The land bank’s seven-member board will include a representative from each of the seven City Council districts to ensure that residents of north and South Omaha will have direct input. Neighborhood leaders rightly will expect the land bank to listen to residents’ perspectives on community development and incorporate them into the land bank’s actions.
To provide the needed solution to the city’s problems with delinquent properties, Omaha not only needs to get creative, it also needs to get the effort right.