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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane housing crisis: Land bank forms to open up more properties for low-income units

The city placed five “zombie houses” in West Central, including this one at 2006 W. Boone Ave., into receivership in 2019 and eventually sold them with an eye toward turning them into affordable housing. Officials from local housing agencies and credit unions are working to create a land bank to help create more low-income housing by rehabilitating “zombie houses” and other abandoned properties.  (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane’s first land bank has launched with promises to free up more land for affordable housing across the city.

A land bank is an organization that works with financial institutions or governments to acquire, hold or redevelop abandoned properties and vacant homes so they can return to the market.

There are just over 6,000 units of housing between all of Spokane’s low-income housing providers, according to the latest annual survey by the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium. And because of low vacancy rates, the average time a person spends on a provider’s waitlist is around three years, said Ben Stuckart, executive director of the Spokane Low Income Housing Coalition.

Created by the consortium and a coalition of local credit unions, the Spokane Regional Low Income Housing Land Bank aims to ease cost barriers faced by low-income housing developers, Stuckart said.

“It’s more important than ever to find innovative ways to build more housing for citizens of Spokane making less than 80% of the average medium income,” he said.

The city has taken steps in the past to address abandoned properties, also known as “zombie homes” or “zombie properties.”

“The city has been doing a great job over the last five years of decreasing that number probably by over 50% that have gone back on the market,” Stuckart said, “but a really good way that other communities have found to deal with that issue is a land bank.”

Nonprofits that develop low-income housing often rely on state or federal subsidies. The problem, Stuckart said, is the government requires those agencies to acquire the land in order to apply.

A land bank gives nonprofits a way to acquire properties from the government or a private party, such as a bank that has foreclosed upon a home, with the cost paid back over time.

The startup was funded by a $45,000 grant from the GoWest Foundation. The list of credit unions that will continue to work with the land bank to secure local funding for projects has not been finalized, according to GoWest.

“While there is no one solution to the challenges we face, the land bank is an important part of the puzzle,” Ezra Eckhardt, STCU President and CEO, said in a statement.

From here, the land bank will establish a board of directors and raise seed money.

“I feel like success would be in a year if we’ve either purchased or received a piece of land so we can start moving projects forward,” Stuckart said.

The Spokane City Council is considering whether to use a portion of federal American Rescue Plan funding toward supporting a local land bank. If the council does, Council President Breean Beggs said the Spokane Regional Low Income Housing Land Bank would be able to apply.