RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And for decades many faded cities have been struggling to redevelop vacant homes, factories and other neglected buildings. Land banks offer one solution; those are public institutions that help fund the renewal of dormant properties. WNYC's Ilya Marritz takes us to Newburgh, New York, a small city on the Hudson River, to see one land bank in action.
ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Newberg is just 60 miles straight north of Manhattan, but its economy can feel worlds away. Sneakers hang in bunches from telephone lines, people push shopping carts loaded with bottles and cans. The town's industrial base of pocketbook factories disappeared long ago. It's a jungle of decay, and it's Madeline Fletcher's job to fix it up.
MADELINE FLETCHER: This building is old; this is, like, from the 1850s. This building is a mess, and it's been very empty for long time.
MARRITZ: Fletcher is executive director of the Madeline Fletcher Community Land Bank. The state-backed bank acquires properties that have been abandoned or failed to pay taxes. Walking these streets with Fletcher is like going through a gallery with a wealthy art collector.
FLETCHER: I'm actually looking at acquiring this.
MARRITZ: And, hey, look over there; another tax delinquent property, which the land bank may also take. The goal is to tear down or redevelop buildings that no private investor will touch. In New York, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has funneled more than $12 million into land banks. The money comes from a cash settlement with financial institutions over abuses in the foreclosure process. And in Newburgh, the focus is on a grid of streets in the middle of town where a quarter of the homes are vacant. Most were built before World War II, and Fletcher says almost all of them can be repaired.
FLETCHER: What you find here, actually, is that, you know, masonry buildings were built to last a very, very long time. So in spite of the neglect, you can save them.
MARRITZ: Buildings like the old Brutus Hodge funeral home.
FLETCHER: OK, it's a little dark in here.
MARRITZ: You can see that much of the plaster that should be on the ceiling is now on the ground, rainwater drips from the roof. It'll cost half a million dollars just to make this building fit for humans again. One of the biggest expenses is something you can't even see, lead and asbestos.
FLETCHER: I guess there was some period of time were plaster had asbestos in it, and it just happens to coincide with when a lot of these buildings were built.
MARRITZ: It'll be $75,000 to clean. But making repairs is in some ways the easiest part of the land bank's job. A bigger challenge right now is untangling the ownership of neglected buildings, like on Lander Street, with its quaint but crumbling brick homes.
FLETCHER: This is our big row of work.
MARRITZ: It's tricky. The land bank owns most of the abandoned buildings here, but not number 52, a two-story with plywood over the bay windows.
FLETCHER: Fifty-two was sold in a batch sale by Fannie Mae. So now it's owned by some kind of random fund in Redondo Beach, California.
MARRITZ: Fletcher wants to buy the building, but she hasn't been able to find a phone number or email address.
FLETCHER: I'm actually just sending them a letter with an offer.
MARRITZ: Does that work?
FLETCHER: I don't know yet.
MARRITZ: Running a land bank means doing a certain amount of detective work.
FRANK ALEXANDER: The nature of abandoned properties is such that the owners don't want to be found.
MARRITZ: This is Frank Alexander, a law professor at Emory University who spent the last two decades helping cities and states set up land banks. He says American laws and culture tolerate abandonment, but for cities it means lost tax revenue and a drag on property values.
ALEXANDER: What we are saying when we create land banks is that vacant and abandoned properties are a form of litter, and it's simply time to change the laws to stop littering.
MARRITZ: Right now the Newburgh land bank has about 25 properties and $2-and-a-half million dollar in grant money from the state attorney general's office.
FLETCHER: Hi, how are you doing?
DEBORAH FORD: That's my building over there.
MARRITZ: Which one?
FLETCHER: I know, we met, 54 right?
FORD: Oh, yeah, yeah, somebody....
MARRITZ: During our walk down Lander Street, a woman pulls up in a minivan. Deborah Ford is wearing leopard-print frames and a headscarf. Three years ago, she and her husband took a chance and bought the house next-door to number 52. They got it in good enough shape to take tenets.
FORD: Mine's is renovated. I'm in the makings, like, doing the gardening and stuff.
MARRITZ: Ford thinks this could be a good neighborhood in a few years time. For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.