NEWARK, NJ - It took years for a bill that gives municipalities a tool to sell blighted properties through land banks to get the final approving pen stroke from a New Jersey governor.
But Wednesday, the stroke of the pen finally happened in Newark.
“[This gives] flexibility that allows you to be able to aggressively deal with a particular property - a particular neighborhood - and much more quickly transform it,” Gov. Phil Murphy said yesterday after signing the bill. “Get that property and get that neighborhood in the hands that it rightfully deserves to be in.”
The governor gave his signature in a suitable setting: in the shadow of a blighted strip of former businesses along South Orange Avenue in Newark’s West Ward. Down the block sat a building that appeared to have gone through a major fire recently. It’s crumbling, charred structure sat adjacent to a fried chicken restaurant.
The bill could potentially help revitalize an area like the numbered blocks surrounding South Orange Avenue with a special tool known as a land bank. It was vetoed twice by former Gov. Chris Christie, who said land banks had been used as "vehicles of fraud and kickback schemes" in other states.
The legislation allows for all municipalities to establish a land bank, or an online tool that shows abandoned properties that are up for sale. The land bank can be managed by either a municipality, redevelopment agency or a nonprofit.
The Newark Community Economic Development Corporation (NCEDC) has been gearing up to act as the city’s land bank. Bernel Hall, the NCEDC president and CEO, confirmed to TAPinto Newark that his quasi-governmental agency would fill that role.
He said Newark would use an online system similar to the one that’s used by the Detroit Land Bank Authority. People would be able to participate in auctions through the website and check the status of other properties, Hall said.
“There's also going to be auction opportunities so that people in the community can buy in their neighborhoods and rebuild it,” Hall said, adding that he hopes the program will help residents become first-time homeowners.
The NCEDC will be able to acquire properties for the bank through gift or purchase and act as the city's agent to purchase liens at tax sale. The organization would also be able to carry out lien foreclosures.
The bill was sponsored by Democrats, including state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, who represents parts of Newark.
“If we go block by block and begin to transform the empty lots that people expect the city to look like - and we show them what we really look like here in the City of Newark - we create a magnet to attract positivity,” Ruiz said. “We create a magnet to ensure safety. We create opportunities for growth to come up - not weeds.”
State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, who represents parts of Maplewood, sponsored the bill in the lower house. She let out a visible sigh of relief yesterday after Murphy signed the bill, and for good reason: she’s been working on this legislation since 2012.
“Cities and towns will now finally have the tools to pursue systemic improvements, rather than piecemeal fixes,” Jasey said.
Mary Theroux, who works as Jasey’s chief of staff, said safeguards for oversight were written in after Christie vetoed the bill, but it still gives each municipality the freedom to set up a land bank via an ordinance that meets their own needs.
Each land bank will have to create an advisory committee that consists of community groups and nonprofits. Changes to the database will also have to be periodically reported to the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA).
"If there's something going on, everybody's going to be watching and the DCA has oversight of the whole thing anyway,” Theroux said.
Mayor Ras Baraka, who has been a proponent of the bill and stumped for it in Trenton a few months ago, called land banks an “incredible tool” for cities like Newark. He said it would put properties back on the tax rolls and also save funds that have been used to upkeep property.
“This gives us the opportunity to be very creative and imaginative and very expeditious about how we deal with these properties that have been this way for decades,” Baraka said. “Not just spend millions of dollars of city money trying to keep property up - trying to board it up, trying to cut down unsightly weeds, trying to deal with rat infestation in communities and neighborhoods.”