OSWEGO — Much has been put on hold over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Oswego County Land Bank has continued its mission of rehabilitating blighted properties and returning them to productive use.
The Oswego County Land Bank (OCLB), which was formed in 2016 as a non-profit corporation and governed by an 11-member board, aims to improve the county housing stock by taking possession of vacant, blighted homes and renovating or demolishing the properties before selling them to qualified owners. Over the organization's short history, that process has now been completed more than 50 times across the county, with another roughly 15 properties in various stages of the process.
OCLB has acquired properties in a variety of ways, including from municipal tax foreclosures, the cities of Oswego and Fulton, donations and bank-owned properties.
Executive Director Kim Park has overseen the acceleration of the Land Bank's efforts in recent years and said despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency continues to acquire, renovate and sell properties. More than a dozen properties were completed and placed for sale in 2020, and the Land Bank, now in its sixth year of operation, is continuing its mission.
"We've had a variety of projects going on," Park told The Palladium-Times on Tuesday, noting OCLB has renovated properties in each corner of the county. "The Land Bank is going strong and we've really kept it going and been having great success through all this."
To date, OCLB has put 53 properties valued at nearly $2.5 million back on the tax rolls, Park said, noting those properties are now generating revenue for the county and the city, town and/or villages in which they're located. On average, Park said OCLB has increased the value of the properties it has touched by nearly 60 percent from start to finish.
The county Land Bank's mission has been slowed at times, but not stalled over the past year. Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive orders last March that shut down many businesses, land banks were deemed an essential service due in part to a portion of their mission being to provide affordable housing.
Park said significant co-ordination was needed, as electrians, plumbers and other contractors were unable to work in homes side-by-side — coronavirus-related restrictions required construction crews and contractors to work separately.
"As long as we could follow protocol in a house we did not have to stop working," Park said. "People really had to go in one at at time, but we made it work."
The OCLB, unlike many other similar organizations across the state, is able to control costs by acting as its own project manager, something Park said is "instrumental" in keeping costs down and ensuring the properties are completed in a timely and efficient manner.
OCLB, in addition to improving homes throughout the county, utilizes contractors from within and around Oswego County, providing an added, and much needed, influx of money into the struggling local economy. Park said OCLB in just the past year spent roughly $1 million with local contractors and vendors in service of its mission.
"We keep all of that local within Oswego County, so that's a whole other facet of how we inject money right back into the local economy," Park said of OCLB.
OCLB has impacted dozens of neighborhoods, from the village of Phoenix to the towns of Richland and Hannibal, making an effort to identify blighted properties that are negatively impacting neighborhoods and surrounding home values. Park described OCLB's mission as "to take care of vacant, blighted properties that decrease everybody else’s' value around them."
Many of the homes OCLB renovates have stood vacant for years and are in various stages of blight when acquired, Park said, and renovation costs can range significantly depending on the state of disrepair. In the most severe instances, OCLB has demolished properties deemed unsalvageable and sold the resulting vacant lots — typically at a significant loss for the organization.
Part of what makes the county Land Bank unique is its ability to control the final outcome of a property, Park said, something that can't be done through a typical auction process or selling on the open market.
"We have control over the outcome and what happens to that property," Park said. "We also have more control over who ends up with that property. When properties go to auction, you lose absolutely all control and have no idea what someone is going to do to that property... and you do not increase value the way that the Land Bank does."
Park said OCLB, which was designed to become a financially self-sustaining entity with occasional influxes of cash from grant funding, is healthy financially and prepared to continue its mission in the coming years.
"Because we keep so much of this in-house, as far as managing these projects, we're usually pretty successful in getting the amount of money we invest in these rehabs out of the sale," Park said, noting the overwhelming majority of demolitions don't recoup their costs but the organization is able to make up for those losses in other areas. "We've done a pretty good job of putting money in and getting a lot of that money back out so that we can reinvest in more rehabs."