FORT PLAIN — The Greater Mohawk Valley Land Bank recently reached a milestone – the organization has invested some $750,000 to rehabilitate and demolish blighted properties throughout Montgomery County, and is now preparing those properties for market.
The two-story building at 58 Center St. in Fort Plain was listed for sale just last week. That property — with its first-level fireplace and wooden floors — now floods with warming natural light on a sunny day.
Down the street from that newly-renovated home is 68 Center St., which is slated for a similar makeover by the land bank. The home there has undergone asbestos testing and abatement and is now on deck to get a complete rehabilitation.
Adjacent to that building, at 70 Center St., a house with foundation issues was demolished by the land bank with the goal of pairing the two lots so an eventual owner of the neighboring home will have significant yard space.
The home at 21 State St. in the village is expected to go on the market in about two weeks after the final punch list items are completed.
When the Greater Mohawk Valley Land Bank acquired the Center and State Street properties in May 2018, Executive Director Tolga Morawski said they were “disasters.” Like many homes the land bank acquires, the rehabilitative work at 21 State St. aimed to repair a litany of previous cobble jobs. “We really had to go through and do a lot to correct prior issues,” Morawski explained.
The land bank invested about $100,000 to renovate just the 21 State St. home, revitalizing the property from top to bottom, including the installation of new heating and hot water systems, flooring, and appliances, with the organization hiring primarily local contractors to complete the project’s various jobs.
Because the goal is to keep the properties affordable so they can serve as family starter homes — banks provide the land bank with gap funding grants, which help make it possible to stabilize the low prices of revitalized properties for potential homebuyers.
The land bank has helped save blighted structures throughout the historic village, according to Fort Plain Mayor Mark Nearbin, who called the group’s work encouraging.
“I’m looking forward to having a couple of new families come into our village” should the properties sell soon, said Nearbin, who added that the land bank’s restoration work is “extremely helpful to our village.”
Often, structures follow one of two paths to dilapidation. Sometimes, they’re abandoned and simply left to rot, or, an out-of-town investor buys a building at an auction, slaps some paint on it, and then rents it out. The condition of those homes often continues to worsen and are then rented to individuals not equipped to improve the property while it degrades until it is uninhabitable.
Land bank properties are sold to people with income levels below the area’s median income, which for a family of four in Montgomery County for 2021 is $59,000. Eighty percent of the land bank’s inventory must be accessible to those in that income bracket while 20 percent of the land bank’s properties may be sold at a price above that eligibility level, according to guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Essentially, to renovate a house and put in new equipment and do everything over, it costs more than what it’ll sell for,” Morawski said. “Since we’re in a somewhat depressed market, you might not get the value that you would elsewhere, and those grants help with that gap.”
The local land bank is “focused on outcome-based sales” and the group is continually concerned with sustained community improvement — which is why sale-with-scope projects remain an important component of its success, Morawski said. In such an instance, a home in need of work is sold with a clawback in the deed that requires occupants to improve the property over a one-year period.
The clawback option ensures that if the promised work is not completed, or is not done to the standard expected, the land bank can reclaim the property.
Said Morawski of the sale-with-scope projects currently taking place throughout the county, including one in Fonda, “It allows us to do more projects than if we were doing them all ourselves.”
Demolitions also remain an important component of the land bank’s local work. Morawski explained that people don’t often realize the potential cost of such a project — easily tens-of-thousands of dollars. Demolitions of unsafe structures remain hard for villages and towns to take on by themselves, as a $35,000 demolition alone would likely cost more than a local entity can raise annually due to the state’s forced tax cap.
While the land bank has remained active throughout the last year, Morawski said that the work the group was able to accomplish recently slowed down significantly once COVID-19 became an ever-looming threat. Work stopped at area properties in early 2020, with grant providers insisting that projects be paused to curb risk.
Home rehabilitation has “been a stop and go,” process, said Morawski, who noted that appliances and materials — especially wood — have been hard to acquire within the necessary timeframe recently. Canadian lumber is in limited supply because of fires, increased tariffs, and a beetle infestation, which “really diminished the supply of lumber,” and led to costs tripling.
At a current land bank rehabilitation project in St. Johnsville, it took four months to acquire the custom roof trusses needed to move the job forward, a transaction which normally would’ve taken just a couple of weeks to complete.
With many home repairs taking place across the area recently, it’s also taken extended amounts of time to acquire appliances for land bank homes.
Along with the projects recently completed, nearing completion, or entering the next phase in the village of Fort Plain, the land bank has also notably undertaken costly demolitions in Palatine Bridge, including those of outbuildings at the old Stone Lodge, where land bank work is underway to determine options for the facility’s potential future re-use.
A rehabilitation project will also move forward at the historic Hoke House in Canajoharie soon; the goal is to install an informational space outlining the facility’s past, along with an upstairs way-station for canal travelers.
A costly demolition also recently took place in the Village of Canajoharie, along with others in Fultonville, with several of the cleared lots there currently receiving offers for potential new construction.
“We’re always interested in helping out,” the local area and community, said Morawski of the goals of the Greater Mohawk Valley Land Bank. Property owners and individuals looking to buy are welcome to contact him with questions, he said. The land bank may be reached at 315-823-0814 or at [email protected]