Above: The Wilmington Land Bank helped transform these neglected row homes on W. 9th St. into appealing residences. Photos provided

By Bob Yearick

The city of Wilmington, and, by extension, the state of Delaware, came relatively late to the concept of land banking. The Delaware General Assembly passed enabling legislation in 2015, thus joining 30 other states that already had land banks.

A concept that took off in the early 2000s, land banks are public or private organizations that purchase, hold, develop, or otherwise manage foreclosed or abandoned properties and convert them to productive use. Their goal is to strengthen and revitalize neighborhoods and inspire economic development.

It took some time to get the cumbersomely named Wilmington Neighborhood Conservancy Land Bank (WNCLB) off the ground, but four years in, it seems to have hit its stride.

In its first full year of operation — 2019 — WNCLB sold nine properties. That number has increased annually, and now totals 184. 

Last year, the organization acquired 78 properties: 46 vacant, dilapidated buildings, 15 vacant lots, and 17 donated lots. 

Of those, 72 were sold. Twenty-five went to investors who paid $2,000 and will rehabilitate them for homeownership; 20 were sold for $2,000 to investors who will rehab them for rental; 14 were joint profit ventures, and four were homestead units. 

Homesteads go for $1 to buyers who commit to renovating the unit within 12 months and living in it for five years. There have been 16 homesteaders since the program’s inception.

In addition, WNCLB offers the Side Yard program, which sells vacant lots at a nominal fee to adjacent homeowners. In four years, 20 blighted lots have been repurposed into residential side yards.

There is also the Urban Garden Lease program, which encourages creation of community gardens.

15-Member Board

WNCLB is guided by a 15-member board of directors, which includes three City Council members and the mayor’s deputy chief of staff. A four-person staff conducts everyday work.

The organization has been without a director since 2020, when the Board, according to Chair Rick Gessner, asked Bill Freeborn to resign. A former city council member and Republican insider, Freeborn in April pleaded guilty to stealing at least $28,000 from the WNCLB. He admitted to taking more than a dozen cash payments of about $2,000 each from potential buyers for properties that were not owned by the Land Bank (WNCLB’s policy does not allow cash payments from buyers). 

Gessner says the Land Bank has moved on from the Freeborn incident. He gives most of the credit to Director of Operations Ray Saccomandi and Contract Manager Natalie DiCostanza. 

“We have a very active board and a talented and hard-working volunteer force, but Ray and Natalie have really stepped up,” Gessner says. “They in effect have been executive directors since Bill Freeborn left. Ray has an extensive background in housing, and he understands how to work with neighborhood groups. Natalie has boosted our ability to go out and apply for grants. We have had to move beyond funding just from the city.”

The WNCLB 2021 Annual Report bears out that comment. The organization secured grants totaling $4,660,500 last year. The American Rescue Plan Act, passed a year ago, accounted for $3,100,000 of the total. The city contributed $500,000. 

Other contributions: $400,000 from the State Housing Authority; $10,500 from corporations; $650,000 from DNREC for remediation projects.

Saccomandi, who joined WNCLB in November of 2018, says the organization is changing Wilmington as a community. “When we came in,” he says, “the city had an inventory of over 250 unoccupied homes they had to move. We sold about 200 (actually 184) of those homes to capable developers, and I’d say 100 of those have been repurposed and sold to new homeowners.” 

As an example, he cites the organization’s efforts on a block of West Ninth Street.

 “We took every vacant property on that block, six of them, partnered with the NCRC (National Community Reinvestment Coalition), rehabbed and sold them, and property values went from $150,000 to $220,000, and it removed all the blight and all drug-selling on that block.”

Block-by-Block Effort 

Adds Gessner: “New Castle County, and the city especially, has an aging housing stock with a lot of vacants, and the marketplace has not been dealing with them. If you really want to improve neighborhoods you’ve got to get rid of vacants. Studies show that if you have one vacant on the block you bring everybody’s value down 30 percent. If there are two vacants, values come down more than half. We had blocks where there were three and four of them. Get rid of them and you can turn around neighborhoods. But it’s a block-by-by block effort.”

WNCLB also partners with other area programs and organizations that address housing blight. One of those is Cornerstone West Corp., headed by Sarah Lester. 

“We believe in the Land Bank’s intent and in the model,” Lester says. “Since its inception, it has been a very helpful entity in putting properties back into use on the West Side. 

“The most recent project, called Lifelines III, involved the renovation and new construction of 10 units or beds for youth aging out of the foster care system, and a drop-in center for unaccompanied youth or homeless youth, in partnership with the West End Neighborhood House. Two of the properties bookended a small side street — Douglas. These corners, on 8th and 7th, were vacant and blighted for years and years, and we were able to work with the Land Bank to acquire them. This project transformed the corners, the street and the surrounding blocks, and built on significant previous investment in the Little Italy neighborhood.” 

Dover and other cities and towns throughout Delaware are plagued with vacant and dilapidated housing, and Gessner laments the fact that the WNCLB is the only land bank in the state. “In addition to us,” he says, “there really should be one in all three counties.”

— The organization’s inventory of available properties can be accessed through the website: WilmingtonLandBank.org. Anyone interested in more information can join the bi-weekly Zoom sessions, and past information sessions also are located on the homepage of the website.

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