Watertown considers a land bank to help sell off vacant homes

Nov 18, 2015

Watertown is looking at cities like Syracuse and Rochester for a new way to handle abandoned homes. City officials say a land bank can help get properties back on the tax roll. 

Out on the corner of Coffeen and Waltham Streets in Watertown, the windows on a red brick house are broken.

“This house must be more than a 100 years old. Its beams are rotted," said Ken Mix, who works with Watertown’s city planning office. Many owners of vacant houses in Watertown, like this one, owe hundreds of dollars in property taxes. After two years of missed payments, the city can seize the house.  But trying to sell that home later can drain the city’s resources. That's when a land bank steps in.

“If the city has a significant number it does make sense to transfer to ownership over to a not for profit like the land bank and try and get them redeveloped,” said Mix.

And then the lank bank's job is to get that house in the hands of new owners. They can also demolish a house and get the ball rolling on plans to build something new.

Watertown Councilman Stephen Jennings says that’s hard to know since the city doesn’t keep track of how many houses are empty, and why. A land bank can only work with homes the city has repossessed for not paying taxes.

“You know its going to matter to me, do we have enough volume to sustain a land bank?”

Jennings says figuring out whether or not there are enough tax-delinquent homes in Watertown to justify setting up a land bank is tricky.

“We’re certainly not a Syracuse or a Rochester or a Buffalo so that’s what I would have questions about,” Jennings said.

And that means for small towns across the North Country, like Malone and Gouverneur, faced with the same problem, a land bank might not be the solution. And Jennings says, for Watertown, a land bank will only help fix up a portion of the empty properties scattered around the city.

“I think we need to tighten up our policy and have a way to know about these properties and at what stage their at," said Jennings.

Jennings says he's thinks figuring out how to deal with vacant houses will be a problem the city will be facing far into the future, as the value of older homes continue to drop.