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Group to fight urban blight through land trust

JACKSON — Working Together Jackson, a network of local community groups, has been quietly developing a new strategy for fighting blight, a problem that has at times seemed too daunting to solve.

The latest idea is to take control of abandoned properties through a land trust, a nonprofit set up for the sole purpose of owning land. It’s both instructive and frustrating to look at other land trusts as a model.

There’s the North Gulfport Community Land Trust, a venture supported by lending from the Hope Community Credit Union. The trust there has successfully redeveloped properties damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, then sold or rented them to recoup costs.

Memphis-based Ducks Unlimited snatches up wetlands for hunting and conservation purposes, bankrolled by a mix of private donors, government subsidies and other funding sources.

The problem for Working Together Jackson will be to make a land trust work without any obvious sources of income to speak of.

The first talks have centered on a mid-city neighborhood where Working Together Jackson is focusing its anti-blight efforts to start.

“What we’re talking about in mid-city is more a land trust that would maintain the properties in that neighborhood, see that they’re maintained and see that they’re put back to the best and highest use of the community,” said Phil Eide of Hope, who is working with the group to develop a functional model.

Eide said two major costs are involved for a land trust: you have to insure the property and pay property taxes. They also would have to deal with maintenance costs like mowing yards.

“That’s the rub in mid-city, and that’s where the discussions are right now,” Eide said. “In other land banks, there’s a potential to provide some income — in Gulfport, there’s a potential to acquire some properties, generate some income from some sales.

“I don’t see how those models work in mid-city. So what model works? The only model that works, the way that I see it, is continuously raising money from private sources and/or government sources. That model works, but it’s a tougher model.”

If a serious discussion on what ails Jackson doesn’t begin with blight, it wouldn’t take long for it to get there. The secretary of state’s office doesn’t keep city-by-city tax forfeiture numbers, but the state owns almost twice as much abandoned property in Hinds County (2,182 parcels) as any other county, buoyed by a record haul last year.

And those numbers don’t tell close to the whole story.

Because of a lag in the way forfeitures are processed, the state will own hundreds more in Hinds County alone over the next few years, as foreclosures from the housing crisis continue to trickle in.

“They (city and state government) certainly did not ask to be in this situation,” Eide said. “These are properties that for whatever reason the owners have walked away from, thrown up their hands.”

But moving the conversation from problem to solution has been daunting.

Blight is in many ways self-perpetuating. An abandoned home depletes the property values of its neighbors, making it unattractive to potential buyers. Eventually, the home will fall into disrepair, leaving an expensive demolition job for whoever might want the property. And once the existing structure is gone, developers won’t build in an area with dismal marketability.

But there have been success stories.

Habitat for Humanity over the last four years built an 18-home neighborhood, Englewood Gardens, after spending five years acquiring property from tax sales and private owners. The city itself has tried various approaches.

Its most popular, of late, is the “neighborhood blitz” strategy. Rather than pick off properties one by one for cleanup, scattered across the city, Jackson tries to clean a whole neighborhood at once.

Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. has paired that with a new community outreach program, in which a mayor’s office representative does a ride-along tour with a neighborhood association, to find out about problems the city might have missed.

“The purpose is to look through the eyes of that constituent and see what their problems are,” said Greg Grimes, head of Constituent Services.

The city is doing a trial run in a few neighborhoods and so far, it has been effective, Grimes said.

Still, these efforts aren’t a panacea. Habitat can’t build new neighborhoods every year, and everything the city does is restrained by funding and legal handcuffs that prevent immediate action on privately owned nuisance properties.

And some of these same problems — funding, certainly — will apply to a would-be land trust, as well.

Owning the land would give communities something to work with.

“The main idea is to put the property back in the community’s hands,” Eide said.

That alone would be an improvement on the status quo. Neighbors can’t clean what isn’t theirs, whether it’s public or privately owned. Once clean, they could put it to some other use — a community garden, perhaps, “or even — rejoice — a private builder” might be enticed to do something with it, Eide said.

Absent a sudden interest from the private sector, residents say they would just be happy with a chance to get their hands dirty.

“We’re not looking for the city to come in and do all the work for us,” says Debra Brent, president of the Mid-city Neighborhood Association. “We want to do things ourselves. This is our community.”



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