Land bank “flips” abandoned properties, on certain conditions

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

New owner in Berne: A sale is pending for this commercial building on Helderberg Trail in Berne from the Albany County Land Bank. The land bank sells abandoned or vacant properties, and offers them to bidders who best fit local comprehensive plans and zoning laws as well as a neighborhood’s needs.

ALBANY COUNTY — While some properties are costly, in Berne, a plot of 2.5 acres and an 800-square-foot building can be purchased for $8,000, but only after presenting an application to the Albany County Land Bank, with a detailed plan of what would be done to the property to help improve the neighborhood. The building, vacant and run-down, would also have to renovated before moving in.

The Albany County Land Bank offers property for sale, ranging from plots of land in the Hilltowns to apartments in the city of Albany. The organization, founded by the county in the spring of 2014, works to acquire vacant or abandoned properties and resell them in order to revitalize neighborhoods, said executive director Adam Zaranko.

“There were a really significant number of vacant and abandoned buildings in Albany County,” he said.

He describes the land bank as a “Swiss Army Knife” in its various abilities to address property blight.

“We’re basically a not-for-profit organization that’s also a New York State authority,” he said.

In the past three years, he said, the organization has acquired over 630 properties, made over 200 property improvements, and has sold over 120 properties. It is the second largest landbank in the state, he said.

Zaranko has been in charge of the land bank for the past year. He grew up in Bethlehem, and eventually worked in New York City’s municipal government as a planner before returning to his hometown. Heading the landbank, he was surprised by the number of abandoned properties in rural areas and suburban areas like Bethlehem.

“The stuff we see doesn’t really address boundaries,” said Zaranko of the properties the organization acquires.

Abandoned properties fall into two categories, said Zaranko; “zombie” properties that have been foreclosed on but kept by banks because their value is less than the debt owed to the bank, and properties foreclosed on by the county. Zaranko said that the county used to auction off these properties, but they now often go under the control of the land bank. Because of the difficulty in discovering zombie properties, most of the land bank’s property comes from the county foreclosures. Of these, 80 percent are in the city of Albany, but the land bank has recently begun seeking properties in rural and suburban areas.


The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Cheap property, big responsibility: Property on Huntersland Road in Berne is listed at $8,000 by the Albany County Land Bank. 


Once a property is acquired, Zaranko said, the land bank may rehabilitate it to some degree. Some properties listed online state the new owner will be responsible for repairing the home. However, the land bank also works with Habitat for Humanity, an international not-for-profit, non-governmental organization that builds houses for people who otherwise couldn’t afford them, on occasion to refurbish abandoned properties. Or the land bank will seek out grant programs to fund cleanup and maintenance. Sometimes, he said, it may be the best option to destroy a building and leave the property a vacant lot to be purchased, particularly in urban areas where structural damages could harm neighboring buildings.

Zaranko said that individuals interested in purchasing property from the land bank should review terms and conditions on the website at The land bank has caveats such as that the individual or business must occupy or use the property for a certain number of years.

The individual, after applying, goes through a vetting process conducted by a board of directors. Zaranko said the board looks at whether there is a history of bankruptcies or foreclosures and — if the applicant is a potential landlord — if there have been any code violations or reports of being an absent caretaker.

The land bank also asks for a plan of what the applicant will do with the property, and works with a local official such as a mayor or town planner who understands the local codes and zoning laws to find out if the intended use of the property meshes with the rest of the neighborhood.

“We don’t want to put a bar necessarily in the residential community,” said Zaranko.

The land bank has an in-house real-estate agent to show the properties, and is looking to add a second one, said Zaranko.

The properties are valued based on a number of factors, not just the market value, but also the condition of the home and the value of similar homes in the neighborhood. Properties featured on the land bank’s website range from $2,500 to $185,000.

Applicants seeking monetary assistance can find a list of not-for-profit groups and grant programs to assist in purchasing property on the land bank’s website, said Zaranko, such as the Albany County Rural Housing Alliance and the First Time Homebuyers program.


The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Bringing back homeowners: A single-family home on North Road in New Scotland is listed for $49,000 by the Albany County Land Bank. 


Because of the properties that are mostly acquired — residential — most applicants are looking to be homeowners. Some applicants, said Zaranko, do seek to use a property for commercial enterprises should it be zoned mixed-use or commercial. The buildings range from single-family homes in the suburbs, houses on large plots of land in rural areas like the Hilltowns, and multi-family dwellings in the cities.

“We don’t just find one type of buyer,” said Zaranko. “There’s enough property to go around for all types of interests.”

The organization also doesn’t sell to the highest bidder necessarily. Sometimes, said Zaranko, the land bank wants to find the best use for a property, even holding a property for strategic land use.

Zaranko warns potential buyers that it is not an easy process to renovate a building, and the board of directors will look for those who understand this.

“The prolificity of those flippers shows...have given people a false narrative of how easy it is to flip these properties,” he said.

The Albany County Land Bank gets funding from the county — $500,000 for each of the last three years, and  $250,000 for next year — as well as the New York State Attorney General’s Office, said Zaranko. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman awarded a grant of over $1 million to the land bank in March, according to a release from his office. The funding came from settlements Schneiderman secured last year with Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, and was part of a total $20 million to 19 different land banks in the state.


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