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During the research phase, it was determined that Sparta struggles to offer its residents adequate and affordable housing. With an aging housing stock and lack of new builds over the past few decades, interest was expressed during focus groups and interviews regarding the potential establishment of a land bank.


Atlas recommends a Blighted Home Renovation Strategy to combat Sparta’s current housing challenges

Phase I: Establishing a Land Bank

The purpose of a land bank is to acquire blighted and abandoned properties, restore or repurpose them, and then make them available to be put back into productive use. In order for a land bank to be successful, it requires collaboration and partnership with other key stakeholders throughout the community.

STEP 1: Identify the entity that will serve as the land bank

The Blue Ridge Business Development Center (BDC) has been identified as the strongest organization to take on the role of becoming a land bank. The Director of the BDC will serve as the leader of this initiative.

STEP 2: Engage with the local government to establish core powers of the land bank

The Center of Community Progress recommends these five core powers should be granted to land banks in order for them to be effective: 

  • Obtain property at low or no cost through the property tax foreclosure process
  • Clear title and/or extinguish back taxes on properties
  • Hold land tax-free
  • Lease properties for temporary uses
  • Negotiate property sales based on community needs without seeking additional approvals from other levels of local government

See Chapter 6 of the Land Banks and Land Banking report for more information on core public policies and powers for land banks.

Phase II: Creating a Roadmap

Once the land bank has worked with the local government to grant applicable powers, modify any ordinances or policies, it’s time to develop a strategic plan that will outline the land bank’s specific initiatives and funding sources. 

STEP 1: Create a housing inventory

The land bank must develop a strategic plan in order to know where to start and what areas/neighborhoods/types of homes should be prioritized. It’s crucial to spend the first few months curating an accurate inventory of the types of homes in Sparta. 

Research conducted by Atlas identified that Sparta has a significant number of blighted and/or vacant homes, so an accurate inventory of these homes would be recommended as a start to this process. 

There are a variety of ways to create this inventory and typically it involves collaboration across organizations, such as city/county governments, real estate entities, and/or local educational institutions.

  • Administrative Data: Alleghany County has a GIS Department that collects information on over 16,000 parcels of property.
  • Field Observations: Although using already existing data can be faster and more accessible, it’s important to cross reference it with what is being observed in the field. By having an individual work their way through the community and build out the inventory in real time, it can fill in potential gaps that GIS data may not collect or make more in-depth determinations.

STEP 2: Prioritize all available options

Once an accurate inventory of homes in Sparta has been obtained, the land bank will want to work through the collected data to organize, rate, and prioritize the types of homes/neighborhoods that need the most attention. 

Although the land bank works independently from local government, it is important to collaborate with town staff and/or city officials to help determine what Sparta’s priorities are in terms of rehabilitating blighted/vacant properties.

After reviewing community input and current housing challenges, Atlas recommends that the old nursing home building located on Ballpark Road be identified as a top priority. The building is currently underutilized and slowly deteriorating. The land bank should try to work with the current owner or seek to purchase the building in order to make the necessary renovations and maximize the housing potential for this property.

STEP 3: Evaluate costs and determine funding

After a priority area/neighborhood has been identified, the land bank will need to evaluate the total cost of purchasing the home(s), renovation and building material costs, and any other anticipated expenses. 

Check out the Resource Roadmap section for more information.

Phase III: Acquire, Restore, Dispose

Now that a strategic plan and funding model has been established, it’s time for the land bank to begin its first project! 

STEP 1: Acquire property

The land bank will work to acquire its first identified priority property. Some preparation for this step should be completed in Phase II in terms of cost and renovation plans. Depending on the level of funding obtained, this step could take several months in order to secure accurate funds and work through the process of purchasing the initial home(s). 

STEP 2: Begin renovations

This land bank concept was built out with the vision of working alongside the Construction Bootcamp (also outlined in this action plan) to assist with the renovation and restoration of homes. 

These two programs can work cohesively together and help each other achieve mutual goals––the land bank can benefit from an increased access to a team of contractors to help renovate the home, while the bootcamp will have an on-site project to provide hands-on training to participants. 

STEP 3: Determine how to dispose of the home

The framework of this step will also refer back to preparation completed in Phase I and II where specific land bank powers and initiatives were established. Depending on the powers granted to the land bank, there are a number of paths that could be taken. Atlas recommends that the land bank evaluate the following in order to determine a model that best suits Sparta’s needs: 

What is the best use of the property? Does the use reflect the community’s specific needs?

There could be policies and measures set in place to establish a number of homes specifically for rentals and a number of them to be sold to new homeowners.

What are the target populations?

This is where the land bank can develop criteria for potential renters and/or homeowners who will eventually occupy these newly renovated homes. These could include specific income levels or age levels, but should be set in accordance with the needs of the community.

Should the land bank dispose of properties at fair market value? Does the price reflect accessibility for the target population(s)? This will be determined based on eligible property owners.

How can the community avoid the property from becoming vacant, blighted, or tax delinquent again?

Special provisions should be put into place in order to avoid future deterioration issues with the home.

See Chapter 10 of the Land Banks and Land Banking report for more information on administrative policies for dispositions.

Resource Roadmap

Atlas recommends evaluating these financing models to create a framework that will support the initiatives of the land bank in Sparta: 

Tax Recapture

This option would require absolute support from the local government but can serve as a stable and direct long-term funding mechanism for the initiatives of the land bank. This method would redirect a portion of the property taxes generated in the future by properties a land bank has returned to the tax rolls.

Delinquent Tax Fee

When homes become abandoned or blighted, it’s very possible that the homeowner has stopped paying property taxes. This is an opportunity for the land bank to work with the local government to enact legislation that allows for penalties and/or fines on delinquent properties to go towards the operating costs of the land bank. The amount could reflect a flat fee or a percentage of the aggregate original tax bill. 

Local Employer-focused Funding

As indicated in Sparta’s Community Snapshot, a majority of residents work in Sparta proper but do not live there. More than half of Sparta workers drive at least 10 miles for work. It is in the best interest of employers to support initiatives that will draw more people to live in town and closer to places of employment. If certain employers provide funds to help renovate homes, an agreement could be made to then sell those homes to existing or future employees of those companies. 

Additional Funding

Atlas has identified the North Carolina Neighborhood Revitalization Program as a viable funding opportunity that can support the initiatives of the land bank. These funds come from federal Community Development Block Grants (CBDG) and award activities that support housing needs for low- and moderate-income residents. This grant allows for a variety of activities pertaining to housing, including: rehabilitation, acquisition, clearance, relocation, substantial rehabilitation, etc.

The Department of Commerce offers the One North Carolina Fund, which is a discretionary cash-grant program that is meant to support competitive job-creation projects. There is a tier system based on demographic information and Alleghany County is ranked in Tier 2, which would require a local match of $1 for every $2 provided by the One NC Fund.

Atlas has also identified the North Carolina Neighborhood Stabilization Program as a viable funding opportunity. These funds are also from federal CDBG dollars and are specifically allocated to be used to purchase foreclosed properties at a discount in order to rehabilitate and/or renovate.

Should Sparta’s land bank identify target populations and prioritize at-risk groups, it could qualify for an interest-free loan through the Supportive Housing Development Program at the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency. This loan is available to nonprofit organizations and local governments to build and rehabilitate emergency and permanent housing for specific groups.

The HOME Investment Partnerships Program provides grant funding to communities working to create affordable housing for low-income households. These funds could be used to build, buy, and/or renovate affordable housing for rent or homeownership.

Another federal program that could support the land bank’s initiatives is the Brownfields Program through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This program provides funding to safely clean up and sustainably reuse contaminated properties. Atlas recommends working with the International City/County Management Association, which is North Carolina’s technical assistance on Brownfields (TAB) provider, to write a community wide assessment grant in order to assess eligible properties (both residential and commercial) for potential clean up before putting them back into reuse.

There are a number of foundations throughout the U.S. that support solutions to make housing more affordable and accessible. Here are few identified opportunities the land bank could pursue to support its initiatives:

See Chapter 7 of the Land Banks and Land Banking report for more information on financing land bank operations.

Our Two Cents

How to prevent future abandonment

Blighted and vacant properties have a ripple effect not just on the properties themselves, but the adjacent properties, the surrounding neighborhoods, and increase city/county’s cost for services, such as fire prevention, public safety surveillance and response, and other local government activities. The land bank can serve as one solution, but should be complemented by other methods in order to enact impactful change.

The Center for Community Progress suggests that local governments work to revise outdated housing codes and establish a system that fits the community’s needs. Solely giving homeowners violation after violation and then possibly pursuing criminal sanctions due to the excessive violations is not effective nor efficient. 

Local governments should work with homeowners to understand potential barriers to maintaining their home(s) and help connect them to resources and potential funding* that could assist in any home renovation projects needed to maintain or upgrade the home. In Ohio, this type of responsibility has been granted to land banks to aid in the prevention of home deterioration.

Active prevention by the local government and community partners can help prevent future deterioration of homes in the community, and maintain a healthy housing stock for individuals/families of all incomes to purchase or rent.

*North Carolina recently announced a Homeowner Assistance Fund derived from American Rescue Plan dollars that aims to prevent mortgage delinquencies, defaults, displacements, and foreclosures for homeowners experiencing financial difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic.