Hundreds of properties are back on the tax rolls in Lackawanna County
Jenna O’Malley and Corey Walsh bought their home on Brick Avenue in North Scranton this summer.
A monthly mortgage payment was cheaper than rent.
On Friday, their property grew. They purchased a back yard and a side yard through the Lackawanna County Land Bank.
"We knew that we'd have the opportunity to be able to buy the land and we always wanted a yard, so this was a push for it," Walsh said.
Through the land bank, the additional lots cost O'Malley and Walsh $650.
The couple's purchase also marked a milestone in the public agency’s existence — the conveyance of its 300th property. The Lackawanna County Land Bank was established in 2015. It's a way to return properties to productive uses and get them back on the tax roll.
"It's a tremendous asset to our community, it's a tremendous asset to our neighborhoods and organizations," said Jesse Ergott, chair of the land bank advisory committee. He's also president and CEO of NeighborWorks Northeastern Pennsylvania.
A state law passed in October 2012 gave local officials more authority to take legal action against tax-delinquent property owners and create land banks. The public agencies help to combat urban blight and encourage economic development.
The Lackawanna County Land Bank sold its first properties in 2017. The agency is governed by an unpaid, seven-member board.
"The Lackawanna County Land Bank is truly one of the most impactful and it has moved ... the most properties in the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," said Ergott.
NeighborWorks is working to revitalize West Scranton. Of the 228 properties that the land bank has conveyed in Scranton, 70 of them are in that section of the city.
Outgoing Lackawanna County Commissioner Debi Domenick is chair of the agency.
"There really is no downside to the land bank," she said.
About 1,000 properties are in Lackawanna County Tax Claim Bureau's repository of unsold property, she said. If any of those properties are located in a municipality and within a school district that has joined the land bank, then the property can be purchased through the agency. That way, the new property owners don't have to pay any back taxes that might be owed on the property.
In Lackawanna County, nine school districts and 15 municipalities are part of the land bank. Both Domenick and Ralph Pappas, who is on staff for the land bank, hope more join.
"And at the end of the day it ... puts the property back on the tax roll, which is good for all three taxing bodies," said Domenick.
In Northeast Pennsylvania, there are at least five land banks and around 25 statewide. A land bank can be created by a single municipality or a group of municipalities with a population of more than 10,000, according to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.
The City of Hazleton recently established a land bank. The Northeast PA Land Bank Authority was established in 2014 and covers nine municipalities in Luzerne County, including: Pittston, Avoca, Duryea, West Pittston, Jenkins Twp., Exeter, Dupont, Plains Twp. and Pittston Twp.
Schuylkill and Northumberland counties also have land banks.