‘Land bank’ to boost affordable housing pitched in Dover


DOVER — Sue Harris, one of the biggest advocates for building tiny homes in Dover, is continuing on her quest to find affordable housing for financially challenged and homeless people in the city.

Ms. Harris, co-founder of Port Hope Delaware, spoke at the city’s Council Committee of the Whole meeting on Nov. 14 in hopes of getting them to consider creating a land bank and what it could do for the area’s neediest residents.

During Ms. Harris’ presentation before the Parks, Recreation and Community Enhancement Committee, she said a land bank is “a public or community-owned entity created to acquire, manage, maintain, and repurpose vacant, abandoned, and foreclosed properties — the worst abandoned houses, forgotten buildings, and empty lots.”

She added that “the purpose (of a land bank) is to rehabilitate or demolish the properties or get them into the hands of new owners who will improve them in accordance with the long-term interests of the community.”

On Aug. 11, 2015, then-Gov. Jack Markell signed into law Senate Bill No. 66, as amended. It enabled counties and municipalities to create land banks in order to acquire vacant or abandoned property through foreclosure and other means.

With that act, Delaware became the 11th state to pass comprehensive land bank legislation. As of last June, there were 170 land banks operating in the country.

The whole idea of land banking is a complex one, but one that Dover City Council President Tim Slavin believes warrants future consideration.

President Slavin made a motion to recommend that Acting City Planner Dave Hugg prepare a packet of research materials, including existing ordinances for the Downtown Dover Partnership and other local governments, and distribute it to all members of city council as background.

That motion also included a recommendation that Mr. Hugg prepare a draft ordinance creating a land bank, based on that research, for discussion at the February meeting of the Council Committee of the Whole’s Parks, Recreation and Community Enhancement Committee.

Mr. Slavin moved to recommend that, as part of the Fiscal Year 2019 budget discussions, Mr. Hugg and Acting City Manager Donna Mitchell identify possible funding mechanisms that are in place in other local governments that could help to fund the land bank initiative.

The motion was seconded by Councilman Fred Neil and then unanimously carried.

Ms. Harris said that land banking could provide a win-win solution for Dover in that it would create affordable housing, which the city “desperately needs,” and would fill and improve the conditions of abandoned buildings.

“The problem in Dover is a lack of affordable housing opportunities,” Ms. Harris said. “Subsidized housing is great but it is lacking and housing is needed that people can afford.

“Being able to find a solution to affordable housing would get rid of blight, which is not helping the city’s taxes or neighborhoods. Land banks could help turn properties around to become something very useful.”

Groups such as the Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity, NCALL Research, the Milford Housing Authority and others have combined to bring dozens of new affordable homes to Dover’s Downtown Development District over the past couple of years.

However, Ms. Harris said that a path to rental and affordable housing is missing in that plan.

She said that all of the existing alternatives, in addition to creating a land bank, would help solve the housing dilemma.

Ms. Harris is also planning on making her land bank presentation to Kent County Levy Court at one of its future meetings.

Councilman Tanner Polce said he was very interested in the land banking initiative but was skeptical about finding the funding to get it started.

Mr. Polce indicated that his colleagues on Wilmington’s council had made him aware of the $2.125 million initial investment from the city to create a land bank. He noted that around $325,000 of that was consulting.

“It is a pretty hefty price tag, but this will allow for conversation on how (Dover) can be creative in its thinking about increasing the housing inventory and looking at potential ways to make housing affordable,” Councilman Polce said. “My major concern is with the price tag and the cost of the initial investment.”

He added that he didn’t want to seem pessimistic and hoped the conversation would go on further.

Ms. Harris told Councilman Polce that there “had already been a lot of research, foundation, and private funding (for the land bank) apart from the government. A lot of people are interested in this and funding would not all necessarily come back on the shoulders of the city.”

She added that something had been mentioned about her Port Hope organization becoming a partner in the land bank, but that nobody could do anything until the city creates the ordinance, law and resolution regarding land banking.

To qualify for land banking, a city has to have at least a 3 percent vacancy rate in its housing. Mr. Hugg said the city of Dover’s vacancy rate is more like 15 percent so that wouldn’t be a problem.

Councilman Roy Sudler Jr., who is also a housing rental professional, advised that he did not think any renter could afford to allow someone to stay in a one-bedroom apartment, house or trailer for $300.

“Realistically, the only way I see someone being able to afford a $300 rental cost would be to rent a room that has access to a common kitchen and bathroom area,” Mr. Sudler said.

Ms. Harris insisted that a land bank could help with creating affordable rental properties throughout Dover and Kent County.

“The bottom line is affordable housing,” she said. “While Habitat does affordable housing for home ownership something is needed beyond that. Creating a land bank might make create good affordable homes, as well as rental properties, possible.”

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