Newark land bank effort: A plan to rebuild the Brick City

A series of forums is underway in Newark to get community buy-in for the city’s new “land bank” initiative, which proponents say will be a powerful tool in combating the abandoned properties and blight that afflict many of the city’s neighborhoods.

“A land bank is basically a not-for-profit that assembles land that the city has had a hard time redeveloping, land that is currently abandoned, vacant, blighted — land that does not currently generate property tax revenue,” said Bernel Hall, president and CEO of the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation, which is leading the initiative.

The concept has been around for years, although Newark’s program is a first for New Jersey. It was made possible by a law signed last month by Gov. Phil Murphy, who came to the city for a news conference marking the occasion. The New Jersey Land Bank Law enables communities like Newark to empower a separate entity to acquire properties and act as its agent to purchase tax liens, carry out lien foreclosures and take possession of abandoned properties.

Newark is said to have more than 1,000 abandoned properties.

“If we can turn those lots into livable housing back on the tax rolls, it’s an opportunity for us to help stabilize our taxes, help pay for better services, and the residents will appreciate they don’t have a vacant lot next door,” said Councilman John Sharpe James.

The city is in the early stages of identifying targeted properties, but a video produced by NCEDC provides a glimpse of what backers hope to achieve, showing numerous blighted properties and contrasting them with renderings of what could replace them.

The video – entitled “Newark. Reimagined.” — depicts rundown properties replaced by a series of multi-unit homes, a line of vacant homes replaced by a complex comprising both condominiums and retail space, and overgrown factory buildings replaced by new office and industrial space. A new community center is also shown as a possibility.

At one of the forums, held this week on Hawthorne Avenue in the South Ward, dozens of people were on hand to ask questions.

“One of the things we want to find out is how Newark residents are going to benefit from this land banking,” said resident Michael Lockett. “That’s the most important thing.”

Newark’s land bank effort is still a work in progress. The NCEDC is studying roughly 170 land bank models across the country to form this one, Hall said, adding that Newark is putting emphasis on creating more chances for home ownership, prioritizing those who have spent decades living amid blight.

That was welcome news to resident Margaret Barnes. “The block I grew up on there’s a lot of abandoned houses, but it wasn’t always like that,” she said, adding that she is a renter who would like to become an owner.

“We are currently piloting in a Section 8 home ownership conversion,” Hall added, “where people who are currently getting Section 8 vouchers, but are looking to move into home ownership by converting their rental voucher into a mortgage voucher.”

The land bank corporation will also offer buyback opportunities and auction vacant lots sitting adjacent to homeowners. All of the properties will go on a publicly accessible online database.

Tim Peters, a city resident and business owner saw value in that information.

“With so many dilapidated properties in this city, it’s hard to find information about getting access to those properties and to find out how to get it or buy it,” he said.

Resident Shakirah Lewis said she would like to participate in the effort, while noting that previous initiations aimed at improving conditions in Newark had gone “awry.”

“As a resident I would like to be involved if we’re going to OK this, to go ahead,” she said. “I want to make sure that this is something that’s for the people of Newark and is just not corrupt people doing stuff that is tearing us down any further.”

Hall suggested she get in contact with city hall to let officials know of her interest in participating. Plans call for the land bank to be monitored by a community advisory board that will oversee transactions and decisions.

“You should reach out to the mayor with your desire to serve,” Hall said. “And to your other point, it will be citizens of Newark, the whole committee will be residents of Newark.”

A final agreement spelling out the responsibilities of the various entities involved in the effort will need to be negotiated and then approved by the parties, including the city council. For the time being, costs are being borne by the NCEDC, Hall said, adding that eventually funds from properties sold and auctioned will be used to sustain the program.

The forums, which are being held in each of the city’s five wards, will continue after Labor Day, with events planned for Sept. 4 at 205 Spruce St. in the Central Ward, and on Sept. 5 at 294 Ferry St. in the East Ward.