Published Tuesday, October 1, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 5:02 pm
World-Herald editorial: City addressing vacant properties

Dilapidated, abandoned houses put a real burden on many Omaha neighborhoods.

The structures pull down property values. They lure children into dangerous exploration. And too often, they provide havens for drug dealing, copper wire thefts and fires.

The city government’s demolition list currently totals about 775 properties, a number that well exceeds the city’s bulldozing capacity. At present, the city is able to address about 20 percent of that, according to Kevin Denker, the city’s chief housing code inspector.

There is some good news, though. An encouraging consensus has emerged that the city needs to do more to address the vacant properties.

City leaders have pumped more money into demolitions. The city is receiving positive feedback from neighborhoods about the increased demolitions. And Omaha is setting the stage for a major step forward with the creation of a land bank.

As The World-Herald’s Christopher Burbach explained in Monday news coverage, the city will spend more than $850,000 this year knocking down problem properties, more than double the amount budgeted last year. And the 2014 demolition budget totals $957,000.

City Councilman Ben Gray said residents have expressed strong support for the city’s increased focus on the problem.

So far this year, the city has torn down nearly 100 condemned properties, nearly three times the number for all of 2012. Still, that’s far short of the 775 or so dilapidated houses that need removal.

That’s why city government and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce supported creation of a land bank to oversee redevelopment of vacant, tax-delinquent property and return it to productive use. State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha made the proposal his priority bill in the Legislature this year and negotiated the details with parties including the banking and real estate sectors and Habitat for Humanity.

The Legislature approved the plan 47-0 last spring, and Gov. Dave Heineman signed it into law.

A land bank, currently approved in four other states, is given authority to buy, manage and develop vacant and tax-delinquent properties. It can put them together into larger parcels to be sold for new housing, businesses or parks. A land bank can borrow money and issue bonds, but it can’t levy taxes or exercise the power of eminent domain.

Omaha city leaders are currently working to or- ganize the land bank, to be run by a volunteer board. Land bank funding can include money 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.

As we’ve noted before, it will be crucial for the land bank’s board and staff to carry out their duties with a high level of professionalism, efficiency and openness. Community input will be a key, which is why the Legislature required that the land bank’s seven-member board include a representative from each of the seven City Council districts.

There is no quick solution to Omaha’s problem with abandoned houses. But the combination of increased demolitions and creation of the land bank should lead to major progress in the years ahead.

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