Springfield Does Not Need a Land Bank
A version of this commentary appeared in the Springfield News-Leader.
In government, nothing succeeds like failure. How else to explain Springfield’s attempt to imitate St. Louis and Kansas City with the creation of a city land bank despite the clear evidence of failure of the existing lands banks in both of those cities.
Land banks are local agencies empowered to acquire vacant, derelict, or tax-delinquent properties with the goal of returning them to productive use in the private sector. Land banks are authorized to be more proactive in acquiring property than traditional county land trusts. The goal of land banks may be laudable. Their record of performance is much less so.
Missouri created the nation’s first land bank in St. Louis in 1971 to help get control of vacant properties and return them to private use. Since that time, the St. Louis land bank has proven better at acquiring properties than at returning them to the private sector. In a struggling city like St. Louis, that isn’t surprising. More troubling is that the reluctance to get rid of the properties it owns has been no accident. Research by Show-Me Institute staff and others has documented the alarming frequency with which legitimate offers for property in the land bank have been rejected. Most commonly, the land bank has been rejecting offers in order to hold the land for future—often more politically connected—development. That development has seldom come to fruition, so thousands of land bank parcels have sat unused for decades.
In 2012, Kansas City followed St. Louis with its own land bank. At the time, the Show-Me Institute published research documenting the failures of the St. Louis land bank as a warning to Kansas City. Disregarding the history and evidence, the state approved a Kansas City land bank, which was started up that year.
Fast forward to 2022, and the Kansas City Star has recently published a major investigative article on problems at the Kansas City land bank. Needless to say, the Kansas City land bank has not lived up to its promises. Its executive director was removed in 2018 after accusations of political favoritism and other problems. The family of the Jackson County Executive received a special deal on certain properties, which raised plenty of eyebrows. As in St. Louis, the Kansas City land bank has been plagued by conflicts of interest and poor management.
The final Missouri city to institute a land bank in Missouri is St. Joseph, in 2019. Thus far the land bank has proceeded laboriously. After two years, it owns just five properties. It may be too early to make a final judgment, but based on its slow start and the lack of success in other cities I’d say the prognosis for the St. Joseph land bank is poor.
Land banks have fundamental problems. Ideally, they would work quickly and efficiently to place properties they own back into private hands. But that very speed is what can make them subject to abuse by those with political connections. In order to guard against such problems, they can become a typical bureaucracy—slow and difficult to deal with. But in that case, few in the private sector will want to work with them. So, the choices are to operate quickly and accept some level of malfeasance, or to operate bureaucratically and drive away your own potential customers. Finally, land bank employees have little incentive to do their jobs so well that they find themselves out of one.
Supporters may claim that Springfield would operate its land bank more effectively than St. Louis, Kansas City or St. Joseph. I don’t dispute the sincerity of the promises—just the likelihood that they’ll be kept.
Springfield needs a new city land bank about as much as it needs the return of bushwackers and bald-knobbers. The city would be better off not creating a land bank and letting Greene County dispose of tax-delinquent properties in its longstanding manner. If Springfield does create a land bank, I fully expect to read a News-Leader investigative report of its failures in the next few years.