Public land should be used for the public good.
On January 25th, 2024, five local organizations sent a letter to the Columbus Land Bank making this demand and asking it to commit to reserving all its properties suitable for residential development for projects that are 100% and permanently affordable. The Columbus Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America authored that letter because we believe a just future depends on our public institutions committing to bold action in order to provide housing for all.
The Columbus Land Bank is the government body responsible for acquiring land using public funds and making it available for housing. Along with its partner organization the Franklin County Land Bank, it has the potential to address one of the primary obstacles to the construction of affordable housing: the high cost of land. In recognition of this potential, Mayor Andrew Ginther announced that his administration would allocate 25% of 2022’s $200 million affordable housing bond to the land banks.
This is welcome news, but only if the Columbus Land Bank takes steps to avoid the developer-friendly policies that have plagued much of the rest of the City’s housing strategy. For example, Ginther and City Council recently decided to expand their controversial residential tax abatement program to the entire city. Under this program, developers are eligible to receive a 15-year 100% property tax break in exchange for pricing 20% of their units at below-market rents for 15 years–or by buying their way out of the affordability requirement entirely. Aware that many Columbus residents are opposed to this program, City Council also voted to award $75,000 to a marketing firm to educate the public about the “benefits” of tax abatements.
The Columbus Land Bank has sometimes operated as though its primary purpose is to redistribute cheap public land to developers. According to public sale records, in one instance, the Land Bank has sold public land for as little as $5,700 to a private developer who resold it for $490,000 after building a single-family home on it. This is unacceptable in a county where at least 52,000 households are severely burdened by housing costs and many others struggle to make rent or pay property taxes. At a time when City leaders are bending over backwards to grant additional tax breaks and other financial incentives to developers, reserving public land exclusively for projects that benefit the public is more important than ever.
Publicly-owned land is one of the most valuable assets the City has at its disposal to address the housing crisis. Selling off this land at a pittance to private developers to build expensive single-family homes is not only a poor policy choice but also morally indefensible. We are sick and tired of the City prioritizing the financial interests of wealthy developers over the wellbeing of its residents. That is why we are calling on the Columbus Land Bank to live up to its institutional purpose and use public lands in a way that actually serves the public.
Letter sent to the Columbus Land Bank on January 25, 2024
To the Columbus Land Bank,
The signatories to this letter are organizations committed to the principle that every member of our community deserves to live in truly and permanently affordable housing. As such, we broadly support the Columbus Land Bank’s mission to acquire land and make it available for housing. High land prices are one of the primary barriers to the construction of affordable housing. By purchasing land using public funds, the Land Bank has the ability to bring down housing costs and facilitate the creation of additional affordable housing. Unfortunately, the Land Bank has not always operated in this fashion.
Over the years, the Land Bank has sold many of its properties at a steep discount to for-profit developers. In some cases, these for-profit developers have built single-family homes on the properties, while in others, they have merely rehabbed existing ones. In all cases, they have benefited financially by buying public land on the cheap and selling it at market rates. Developers have resold some former Land Bank properties for over $400,000, many in historically-deprived neighborhoods. These unaffordable single-family developments make it harder to build the dense housing the city needs and instead incentivize landlords to raise rents.
As organizations committed to housing justice, we believe that publicly-owned land should be used exclusively to further the public good. Providing low-cost land to for-profit developers does not advance a public aim. Providing low-cost land for the construction of affordable housing does. That is why we are calling on you to commit to reserving all Land Bank properties suitable for residential development for projects that are permanently and 100% affordable.
You recently announced your intention to reserve most of your inventory for affordable housing projects going forward. This is welcome news, but it does not go far enough. The Land Bank has a vital role to play in creating and preserving affordable housing in Columbus. The Land Bank should join us, and all concerned Columbus residents, to help truly address the housing crisis.
Columbus Democratic Socialists of America
Central Ohio Food Not Bombs
Heer to Serve
People’s Justice Project