Just Ask Jim

Answers from director Jim Rokakis to questions about Thriving Communities Institute

So what is Thriving Communities Institute?

The Land Conservancy's Thriving Communities Institute takes a region-wide approach to revitalizing northern Ohio's urban centers. We want to help transform vacant and abandoned property into new opportunity. As former treasurer of Cuyahoga County, I worked with others to found the Ohio land-banking movement. Pretty soon, people all around the country were asking for our views on land reutilization and foreclosure prevention efforts. The Land Conservancy is the leading land conservation organization in northern Ohio and contributes to this venture its expertise in land-use planning, public funding, and land transactions, among other things. Within that context, we are providing local governments with the tools necessary to implement effective and intelligent land-use policies.


What does Thriving Communities do with land banking?

Thriving Communities has a goal of helping to establish county land reutilization corporations (or "county land banks") throughout Ohio, with a strong focus on northern Ohio and the 14-county area served by the Land Conservancy. To accomplish that, we will develop policies and procedures based on the successes of the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corporation, and customized to the distinct needs of each county we support. Thriving Communities will then work with land banking leaders all over to promote ongoing learning, best practice sharing, and coordination of policy and outreach efforts.


What is a county land bank? Why do Ohio counties need land banks?

In 2009, Ohio General Assembly authorized the creation of a new form of county-based land bank, called the county land reutilization corporation. County land banks are entrepreneurial organizations which combine the best attributes of a government entity and a private enterprise. They have the important mission of accumulating vacant and abandoned properties, tax free, until the land can be put back to productive use.


Ohio counties need land banks to help address our foreclosure crisis. Tens of thousands of vacant and abandoned properties afflict Ohio's communities. These problem properties destroy the fabric of the surrounding communities and result in increased costs to taxpayers. We have seen that government alone does not have the flexibility to solve the problem. Private enterprise alone cannot fix it. County land banks are uniquely qualified to effectively address the problem of vacant and abandoned property.


Here is an excerpt from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland's 2008 report Breaking the Housing Crisis Cycle: "The costs of dealing with vacant and abandoned properties fall mainly to local governments, which are often unable to break the cycle of foreclosure to abandonment to blight. They are thwarted by heavy costs, the lack of a timely legal mechanism to acquire properties, liability concerns, and no overarching strategy to address the problems at a regional level. Land banks provide that mechanism." For more information on county land banks, click here.


What is the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corporation (CCLRC)?

After the passage of state enabling legislation, (S.B. 353, 127th General Assembly) the Cuyahoga County Commissioners created the CCLRC as a nonprofit organization whose mission is to strategically acquire properties and return them to productive use, thereby reducing blight, increasing property values, supporting community goals, and improving the quality of life for county residents. For more information on CCLRC, please visit their website.


How does Thriving Communities enable strong land banking throughout Ohio?

We'll start in our own back yard. In its first year of operation, Thriving Communities will help establish land banks in at least three northern Ohio counties. We have developed tools and resources to support county leaders seeking to establish and maintain land banks. These include land bank policies, operating manuals, training sessions, workshops, and intensive consultative support for start-up or challenged county land banks.


Our focus is not solely in launching new county land banks. Thriving Communities is also a state and regional training center for land banks. In October 2011, we hosted The First Convening of Ohio Land Banks conference, an interactive forum to discuss tactics and strategies with county officials and others who are considering land banking as a means to address urban blight.


In addition, we lend our support and experience in developing land-banking and land-use policy as it emerges as part of the government response to the foreclosure crisis. Communities across the nation, struggling with similar vacancy and foreclosure issues as Ohio does, continue to reach out to Thriving Communities as a resource and a leading voice.


What are you most excited about for the future?

I am most excited about the new ideas that Western Reserve Land Conservancy and Thriving Communities can bring to the problems that afflict cities like Cleveland, Lorain, Akron, Canton, Youngstown and Warren. The problems facing these communities related to vacant properties seem insurmountable, but I believe that by working with our partners at the local, county, state and federal level that we can solve these issues and turn these problem properties into real opportunities. Thriving Communities is in a unique position to bring these varied stakeholders together.

Vacancy is Toxic

Vacant properties act like an infection in our body. If not treated, the disease spreads.

Consider this: One vacant house on a block destroys the value of nearby homes. Neighbors must then decide between paying high mortgages or walking away. This leads to more vacant homes in the area and soon an entire neighborhood is vacant or worthless or both. Soon the next street is infected and the disease spreads … predictably, relentlessly, and with devastating consequences.