By Hilary Farrell
Entire blocks, streets and even neighborhoods have been swept by thousands of now-vacant, largely county-owned city of Saginaw properties.
With about 3,200 Saginaw County Land Bank Authority-owned parcels, and another more than 400 under the auspices of the Saginaw County Treasurer’s office, the county is the largest land-owner in the city of Saginaw.
But officials will tell you that’s never been the intention – ideally, they’d like out of the land business all together.
A crush of economic factors, such as the housing market and a widespread loss of local jobs, create a sort of boiling point not many can escape, county Treasurer Tim Novak said. His office oversees the land bank.
"As those things have happened, people have just - some of them just flee," he said. "If they don't have a mortgage on the property, they just leave it. It sits abandoned for up to three years until we can acquire it."
A map developed by WSGW through public records searches and information provided by officials paints an almost overwhelming picture – significant swaths of city census tracts and streets affected by foreclosures, as well as by the residents who simply leave.
In some areas of the city, it’s impossible to find a block with any kind of real ratio between homeowner and government-owned land.
And the former residents may not have wanted it, but government officials will be the first to say they don’t either – and they’re working on ways to get that land back into private hands.
How to view the map: all red dots are parcels owned by the Saginaw County Land Bank Authority. Purple represents the parcels under the county Treasurer's office. Yellow dots represent planned demolitions (most, but not all, are in city limits). Click on the + or - signs at the bottom right-hand corner of the map to zoom in or out. Clicking on any of the data points will pull up the address of the property. You can click on the upper right-hand corner to expand the map.
The story of Saginaw is one that plays out in many other Michigan and national communities – a story of the businesses and residents who up and leave, and the impact of what’s left behind.
In order to understand how the county ended up with so much property, it’s important to understand the land bank.
Created in 2005, the land bank is a tool for acquiring tax-foreclosed properties. It’s also a way to grant communities more local control, Novak said.
"It allows a better and a more efficient use to try to (manage the land)," Novak said. "What do you do with the properties when you hold them in your portfolio? And how do you get them back into the hands of private citizens? That's the goal - the overall goal, most of the time."
The city of Saginaw makes up 80 to 90 percent of the land bank’s property portfolio, Novak said.
It’s also important to note, there’s a difference between tax and mortgage foreclosures.
The land bank deals with the former, not the latter.
Novak's office has seen the tax-foreclosure numbers increase with the overall market, he said. That's slowed down a bit recently – from about 1,200 properties annually four, five years ago to the 500 or 600 now.
"It's come down some, and it's kind of flattened out," he said. "But as far as where it was in 2005, where you had like 12 properties in it versus now when you have thousands - it's a big difference."
The actual acquisition – moving a property off the tax rolls and into the land bank portfolio – is a timely process, Novak said.
The county's required to wait three years from when that property stops paying taxes until it can be taken over.
Which also explains why you see houses quietly degrading until that three-year rule has passed.
In other cases, properties picked up for very little in auction are simply not maintained; rented out while unpaid taxes slowly accumulate.
The cyclical problem lends itself to larger issues.
Impact on Finances
With the glut of government-owned property in the city of Saginaw, it may be easy to point fingers at the problem.
About 15 percent of all city properties are part of the land bank portfolio, and are not on the tax rolls. If you add in other city-owned parcels and exemptions such as Renaissance Zones, that number is bound to be higher.
Although that’s an issue, City Manager Tim Morales said the city’s tax cap means a resident can only pay so much.
"It hasn't affected our revenue in so much as decreasing it; it's been increasing our mills," he said. "It does kind of spread the burden onto other properties."
That’s particularly apparent in special revenue sources – like the Public Safety millage – where less to tax results in less funding for police and fire services, Morales said.
"The less number of parcels that you have in there, or the lower value (of them), the less you collect for that particular service," he said. "We've seen a pretty dramatic decrease in our revenue collected for the Public Safety Millage over the past several years."
So it’s easy to throw that statement around – 'if we had less government-owned land, we’d have more money,' but it’s not that simple.
And the problem hasn’t gone away.
Acquisition may have leveled off, but forfeitures have not, Novak said.
"That's the warning before foreclosure - and those numbers are not dwindling; those are staying at a higher level than we'd like," he said. "I guess if you look at that, you're still in that bubble where there's a couple thousand properties in jeopardy of being foreclosed at any given time in the next couple years."
In short, with less funding, spread across the same amount of people, Saginaw’s property problem demands a disproportionate amount of shrinking resources.
It’s a large number, but that doesn’t mean progress hasn’t been made.
Demolitions, Code Changes and Acquisitions
An $11.2 million federal grant awarded to Saginaw last year hopes to break the cycle, or at least give it some damaging blows.
About 570 of a targeted 950 residential demolitions through the grant are somewhere along the process, city Chief Inspector John Stemple said.
Most, but not all, of those properties are within city limits.
More work being done is behind the scenes, 'adding teeth' to fight the city’s vacant property problem.
Many fall into Stemple’s wheelhouse, such as a change to code enforcement and policing strategy that focuses efforts on a quadrant system.
"Assigning them to a small geographic area, instead of bouncing all over the city, maybe makes it more efficient," he said. "It also puts the same people in the same neighborhood, where they can start creating relationships with the residents."
City officials also approved creation of a non-owner occupied registry last year, which among other things requires a locally-appointed agent and annual registration with the city's database.
Discussion on introducing a Crime Free Addendum ordinance to city renter/landlord agreements has also been met with largely positive feedback.
At the county level, county commissioners signed off on foreclosure acquisition by the land bank prior to public auction earlier this year.
That's to help pull out the broken-down properties that can’t be saved with rehabs or rebuilds, Novak said.
"They are not houses that anyone would buy - these are houses that are beyond repair," he said. "This is not a way to intercept and circumvent that (auction) process, at all."
Ideas for the Future
There are no easy answers to the city of Saginaw’s property problem, but there are some small-scale changes that may result in larger goals.
One idea that’s gaining traction in City Hall is the Vacant Property Management plan.
There are five components, including a new rubric for city demolitions. It involves getting rid of what Saginaw Future's Tom Miller, Jr. calls the ‘driveways to nowhere’ – those concrete entrances left behind once a structure is removed.
Officials now want to go back and get rid of those driveways, add curb cuts and tidy up those former demolition sites.
"It's about cleaning up the appearance and cleaning out the clutter, so that people can see the good things that are going on," Miller said. "it is difficult when you ride through some of these neighborhoods to see the positives amongst all of the broken windows, burned out homes and tall grass."
A big part of that is planting clover, which doesn’t require mowing or maintenance, Miller said.
"The primary goal of this project is to improve the quality of life for the residents of these neighborhoods - that is goal number one," he said. "A benefit of that, and this plan, is that it helps the city and the land bank from not pursuing grass cutting as an option. But secondarily, what we're trying to do is to raise property values."
Small Changes, Large Impact
Pastor Roy Baldwin of New Beginnings Deliverance Outreach Ministries and One Week One Street believes in that same principle – finding a way to transform the land.
OWOS has created both a community garden and a playground pavilion on formerly-vacant land bank lots.
"We had discovered that lower crime is associated with better kept-up areas, and community parks, believe it or not," he said. "What I'm trying to do is inspire the neighbors, rather than having a grass lot next to them, to have a garden."
Baldwin’s philosophy is simple - If you invest in an area, the people start investing with you. They start to care. And that’s working, he said.
County Treasurer Tim Novak said the OWOS philosophy is working, too.
"That whole neighborhood's been a target, as far as demolishing as many blighted homes as you can," he said. "We found out that the homeownership rate in the neighborhood alone is higher than the average in the city, which was a huge surprise to all of us ... It's exciting to see people taking back, in little pieces, and little success stories - taking back the city."
In the month since WSGW began researching this story, more than 20 lots have gone out of the government’s hands and into private ownership. Many of those were purchased by Covenant Medical Center – a hospital spokesperson says it’s a way to help with community stabilization.
These may be small moves in a larger problem, but taken together, could be an a good sign of change to come.
'The Map' graphic by Sarah Noble | Reporting, map data and photography by Hilary Farrell | Data sources: city of Saginaw 2013 Assessing Division Statistics, various city of Saginaw and county reports 2013 & 2014 | Google map data sources: Saginaw Area GIS, city of Saginaw SONAR, other city of Saginaw and county records