Omaha Municipal Land Bank Lacks Full Representation
By Mark McGaugh
This article contains the opinions of the author.
With the reserves of affordable housing diminishing and the presence of private contractors increasing, residents aren’t left with many options to stay in their communities. However, The Omaha Municipal Land Bank (OMLB) has recently emerged as one tool to help stave off the negatives of gentrification.
Created in 2014 shortly after the approval of the Nebraska Municipal Land Bank Act, introduced by State Senator Heath Mello, Omaha’s Land Bank is a non-profit governmental agency created to help manage the thousands of distressed and tax-delinquent properties throughout Omaha. These properties are either donated or purchased by the Land Bank, which then maintain and ultimately sell them below market rate. Applicants must meet three criteria before they can purchase land bank property: state their intended end use for the property, agree upon an estimated job-cost and prove that they have the funds available for both the property and the estimated job-cost.
The OMLB website states its goal is to transform these distressed properties into “positive community assets.” LB 699 gives a specific list of potential uses for land bank properties. Those uses may include purely public spaces and places, affordable housing, retail, commercial, and industrial activities, urban agriculture and other uses as determined by the municipality or municipalities. According to the bill, “the municipality shall take into consideration the highest and best use that, when possible, will bring the greatest benefit to the community.”
Councilman Ben Gray, who helped create the land bank and serves as a non-voting board member, speaks highly of the Land Bank’s potential for change.
“It is a tool that is showing some benefit in the community in terms of people being able to buy houses, being able to buy lots, being able to add-on to their homes,” he said. “A variety of ways that it is working, and working well at this point.”
However, there are a few shortcomings causing concern for many community members. Councilman Gray said progress needs to be expanded for OMLB to succeed. For instance a low turnover rate of properties suggests there may be room for improvement. According to OMLB documents, more than 350 applications have been submitted. Yet, the land bank has only sold 69 properties since it began acquiring them in 2016. Without the required finances to qualify for these dilapidated properties, many families are left out of the conversation.
Furthermore, a lack of representation leads one to wonder who has the power to decide what is actually a “positive asset” for the communities surrounding Land Bank properties. The Nebraska Municipal Land Bank Act, which governs the Land Bank, states in section 19-5205 (1)(c); “If the governing body of the municipality creating the land bank has any of its members elected by district or ward, then at least one voting member of the board shall be appointed from each such district or ward. Such voting members shall represent, to the greatest extent possible, the racial and ethnic diversity of the municipality creating the land bank.” (emphasis added)According to the US Census Bureau, 12 percent of Omaha’s population is African-American and 13 percent Hispanic.
According to a list provided by the OMLB, South Omaha’s District 4 seat was empty for 27 meetings between 2015 and 2019.
Mary Byrnes of Lincoln Federal Savings Bank was appointed to the seat in December 2019.
The District 2 seat was shown vacant for 12 meetings.
Real estate broker Michelle Torrence served from February 2018 to June 2019. Her replacement, Tiffany Hunter, a corporate auditor, was appointed by the mayor on February 4, 2020. Candice Price, a local entrepreneur, was also appointed as a non-voting member. The other board members of color, District 2 Councilman Ben Gray, Precious McKesson (NONA) and Teresa Hunter (FHAS), serve as non-voting members.
These two seats, Districts 2 and 4, represent an overwhelming percentage of the property controlled by the Land Bank. Almost 70 percent of those properties fall in District 2, which is essentially everything north of Cuming Street and east of 72nd Street. Furthermore, the first few months of 2020 will prove instrumental for the Land Bank as it continues its search for a new full-time executive director. Mayor Stothert’s Deputy Chief of Staff Troy Anderson has held the interim position since former director Marty Barnhart abruptly stepped down in May 2019. While no word has come as to who is in the running, it is undoubtedly a position that should be filled quickly.
After existing for the better half of a decade, Omaha Municipal Land Bank still hasn’t quite found its stride. With several huge vacancies and thousands of parcels of land sitting and waiting for a buyer, the clock is ticking. How much longer can the Land Bank pay to maintain these properties before they fall into the clutches of big dollar contractors? How long until the Land Bank is considered a failure or a success?