50 years of future affordable housing

land banking greenville sc

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The question keeps coming up: how can we make Greenville a more affordable place to live? Turns out, the answer isn’t about hoping developers stop building luxury complexes. We talked with the City of Greenville to learn more about land banking, the City’s offensive move to address the affordable housing issue.

Land banking in short: using federal funds, the City acquires property to hold for future affordable and workforce housing.

In practice, this looks like purchasing empty lots + taking over dilapidated buildings or available space by request from the community, then finding a private developer or non-profit to work on affordable housing plans. It’s typical for the land to be restricted to that purpose for at least 20 years, but sometimes Greenville extends that to 50.

As downtown real estate gets more expensive (and it does sometimes seem like every new development involves luxury condos or apartments), we wanted to know what the City’s doing to protect some of that land.

Here are a few of our questions + the answers we found:

How much land does the City of Greenville currently have land banked?

15 acres throughout the city (a.k.a. not one giant plot of land). Some of this land is meant to be developed in the future, and some is reserved for right-of-way parks (city-owned and dedicated to public use) + other green space.

How has interest in land banking changed over the past decade?

Greenville’s got a long history of acquiring property for thoughtful development, going back to early downtown master plans that recommend areas for redevelopment + and the Community Development Block Grant program (which provides annual grants) established in 1974 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The City’s 1997 Strategic Assessment of Downtown Greenville stressed the importance of acquiring land: “Some properties have been vacant or underutilized for decades and there appears to be little or no incentive for reinvestment, upgrading or sale of these properties by current owners. [...] specific ‘critical’ sites and buildings should be identified for specific plan elements and for public infrastructure.” Their strategy: “Property owners would be included in the process and be encouraged to develop their property in accordance with an overall master plan or to sell the property at a fair market value for inclusion in a land bank.”

In the 2008 master plan, scroll to pg. 61 to see a map of parcels targeted by the housing fund, with general areas to target on pgs. 69 (Heritage Green and the Warehouse District) + 78 (public parks and common areas). And by the 2014 West Greenville plan, the efforts to bank land were much more specific, with particular areas of focus starting on pg. 173 (like Pendleton, Woodside Mill, and Mayberry St).

Where do the funds to buy this land come from?

Federal grants. But not grants in the sense that Greenville has to compete for funding. We’re considered an entitlement community by HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). That means we get annual allocations appropriated by Congress for us to use specifically for advancing affordable and workforce housing in our community, and Greenville is then able to plan development that best fits the community. That money is reliable + consistent, so land banking is a long-term option. Eligible cities are determined using a formula, not by application.

Once the city uses those funds to buy land, is its use restricted?

Yep – the property is protected. That goes back to the neighborhood’s master plan and the type of property acquired, though: it might be land where the community wants to see a small public park, or a dilapidated building that’s just sitting empty until the neighborhood asks the city to acquire + help redevelop it.

When the land is sold to a developer, does that protection carry over?

Yes again. There are restrictive covenants recorded on that property that designate a period of time for the land to remain affordable/workforce housing or community space. The City’s ultimate goal is long-term protection. HUD’s minimum time period is 20 years, but Greenville has increased that number to 50 in some cases just to make sure that land remains affordable for future citizens.

A similar effort that’s worth knowing about: community land trusts, where land is banked and then made available for redevelopment. The City (or a nonprofit) owns the literal dirt indefinitely, but businesses with a long-term lease are able to build on top of it – allowing better control of development.

We’re not there on a city level yet, but organizations like the Sterling Land Trust are popping up to join the effort for more community-oriented development.

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