Newark Mayor Ras Baraka today called a proposed bill that would create a data system of city-owned property up for sale a "key tool" to help municipalities burdened with vacant and abandoned properties.

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Baraka testified at a state Assembly Appropriations Committee in Trenton to show support for the municipal land bank bill. The legislation allows a municipality to designate a nonprofit or redevelopment entity to act as a land bank to the city. 

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“In the City of Newark alone we have over 1,000 vacant and abandoned properties,” Baraka said. “While these properties have been abandoned for years, the consequences are unbearable for the residents that live around them." 

The bill would allow the land bank, or nonprofit, to acquire properties for the bank through gift or purchase and act as the municipality's agent to purchase liens at tax sale. It would also allow the designated organization to carry out lien foreclosures and acquire individual property takings.

It is expected that the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation (NCEDC) will be designated to handle the city’s land bank. The NCEDC is a quasi-governmental agency with Newark as its only client. It just came under new leadership after its former CEO left to head the Newark Alliance.

A version of the bill was vetoed twice by former Gov. Chris Christie.

The former Republican governor’s veto letter raised concerns about a lack of state oversight of land banks. He noted that land banks have been used as "vehicles of fraud and kickback schemes" in other states and that the potential for mismanagement was great.

“Indeed, land banks have been known to hoard properties, leading to the crowding out of development and corrosion of the property tax base, since banked properties will not generate tax revenue,” Christie wrote in 2014.

The Detroit Land Bank Authority, for example, reportedly received subpoenas amid a federal investigation in January. It has also been praised for increasing home ownership for among Detroit residents.

The bill's sponsors in the lower house include Assemblywomen Mila Jasey (Essex Morris) and Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex).

“It was vetoed by Governor Christie two times because he did not believe that our cities and our underserved communities had the wherewithal to govern themselves and act in the best interest of their residents,” said Jasey today in Trenton. “This bill gives urban municipalities the proper tools they need to govern themselves and control their own destinies.”

A land bank entity would have to create a community advisory board within six months of its creation. The board is supposed to consist of recognized community groups and nonprofits, particularly those that are active in the area where the land bank anticipates holding properties, the bill says.

The land bank would also have to periodically update the state on any changes to the online database of properties up for sale.

"This is not rocket science here," Baraka added during his testimony. "This is not something special that is not done in other communities, in other states, in other municipalities. This is something that can be done and should be done. It is incredibly necessary. Not only does it bring more revenue to the city, it also brings more revenue to the state." 

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