The Detroit Land Bank Authority submitted a resolution to the City Council in January requesting that the City Council authorize the Planning and Development Department to transfer all of the City’s right, title, and interest in the remaining vacant residential parcels—which amounts to approximately 30,000 properties—to the Detroit Land Bank Authority for no cost.
The resolution has not come as a surprise. The Detroit Land Bank Authority’s role has seen a dramatic increase in last few years under former-Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and current-Mayor Mike Duggan. The DLBA has grown from a small outfit of about 5 staff members to its current 82 full-time staff in just a few years, with ownership of 50,000 parcels within the City. Meanwhile, the real estate division at the Planning and Development Department—which was previously responsible for the majority of City land sales—has been dismantled. Given the quick transition from the Planning and Development Department to the DLBA, the natural question that many have been asking is just what is this land bank thing anyways?
Originally created in 2008 under the authority of the Land Bank Fast Track Act, the DLBA was meant to assist the City of Detroit in its effort to clear title to abandoned property and facilitate its use and development. However, to call it a City department would be incorrect. While it’s official designation is a “public body corporate.” It is managed by a Board of Directors, who selects the Executive Director to run the day-to-day operations of the DLBA. In practice, this means that the DLBA is essentially the land management arm of Mayor Duggan. The Mayor selects 4 of the 5 Board Members and has the power to remove any of the 4 Board Members he selects for any reason at any time. This centralized power structure comes with its advantages and disadvantages.
The advantage of the DLBA is its efficiency. The DLBA acquires properties through various means, cleans the title, and then sells the property to private individuals and entities. Notably, land disposition decisions regarding the DLBA are centralized in the DLBA alone. Unlike with property owned by the Planning and Development Department in years past, there is often no need to get the approval of any other City department. However, this centralized power is also the cause for concern for many regarding the DLBA.
First, there are fundamental concerns with how the DLBA is funded. The majority of its Board of Directors are appointed by the Mayor and it has the power to accept funding from all sources, including from corporations and other for-profit companies. Therefore, there is a concern that private money will directly influence governmental decision-making. Second, there is a concern that the DLBA, with its centralized power regarding land disposition, may be less responsive to and less representative of the general public of Detroit.
The reality is that the DLBA is somewhere in between. While it is efficient and has been an effective partner for some urban agriculture groups looking to expand operations and purchase property, it has also been a point of frustration for others who have tried to purchase property from the DLBA but either haven’t received responses or haven’t been dealt with in a completely forthright manner.
To further complicate matters, the transfer of the remaining 30,000 properties presents more concrete issues for many urban farmers. Many have operated on City-owned property pursuant to year-to-year permits. Some urban farmers have already had land that they were operating on transferred to the DLBA while others are operating on what is still City-owned property. This has prompted many urban farming organizations to examine just how secure their property interests are and to voice questions regarding just what the DLBA is planning to do with all this property.
The concerns described above have not gone unnoticed by the Detroit City Council. Councilwoman Mary Sheffield submitted a memorandum to the Detroit Legislative Policy Division in late-January requesting a report on, among other things, the issues discussed above.
The report called for “a comprehensive, documented, legal and policy statement of the role of the Land Bank in such critical land use, community economic development and blight eradication activities…” Specifically, the report called for three main things:
- A newly drafted Intergovernmental Agreement to more clearly the role of the DLBA in the disposition of residentially zoned land considering the dismantling of the real estate division of the Planning and Development Department.
- A policy that clearly lays out the processes for how residents can acquire property through the DLBA in the Intergovernmental Agreement
- Complete inventory of DLBA-owned property
If you have been operating an urban farm on City-owned property, you should check to see whether it has been transferred to the DLBA or whether it is still owned by the Planning and Development Department. If it has been transferred to the DLBA, any agreement you had with the City to be on the property may have been effectively revoked upon the transfer. Whether the property is currently owned by the Planning and Development Department, you should also consider contacting your local District Neighborhood Manager as well as your local Council Member to figure out what plans the DLBA or the City may have for the property that you have invested in and operated on.