Daniel Martonis

Daniel Martonis, chairman of the Cattaraugus County Land Bank, said the land bank was notified it had received a second state grant for $650,000. The Allegany County Land Bank received $500,000.

LITTLE VALLEY — Land banks in Cattaraugus and Allegany counties were notified last week by the state Attorney General’s Office of new grants totaling more than $1.1 million.

The Cattaraugus County Land Bank will receive $650,000 and Allegany County will get a $500,000 grant.

The Cattaraugus County Land Bank is selling more homes to low to moderate income families and demolishing more blighted homes than initially planned, said Daniel Martonis, Cattaraugus County director of Real Property Tax Services and chairman of the Land Bank.

Martonis said the Cattaraugus County Land Bank has partnered with Cattaraugus Community Action to help low and moderate income families buy and make improvements to homes the county has foreclosed on.

He gave as an example a man with several children who bought a home from the Land Bank for $6,500. Since the individual qualified for Community Action programs, the agency was able to install new windows and a new roof. Homes can also be winterized.

“These are OK houses,” Martonis said. “Nothing that’s going to sell for $50,000. On the open market, they might bring from $30,000 to $40,000, but you’d have to put $30,000 to $40,000 more into it.”

The Land Bank reviews the list of homes the county plans to foreclose on and makes a list of the homes that are too good to demolish, but not top tier candidates for the county auction.

The Land Bank aims to help keep properties in foreclosure to landlords who do not plan to fix them up before renting them out. In the past, some properties sold at auction ended up on the tax list a few years later.

“We’ve got a lot of money left over from the grant,” Martonis said. The initial grant was for $1 million. “We’re looking at next year for houses that should be pulled from the auction to fix up and sell or demolish.”

Martonis said of the 30 properties that have been included in the Land Bank program, seven have been rehabbed and the rest are being demolished this winter. “We have the option of selling a property ourselves,” he added.

The Land Bank was formed to fight blight across the county. Since much of the housing stock is in Olean, much of the demolition has occurred or will occur in Olean. Besides Olean, other communities where the Land Bank is active include: Little Valley, Mansfield, Franklinville, Carrollton, Lyndon, Machias, Yorkshire, Ashford, Hinsdale and Napoli.

After Community Action completes work on a home, the family has to live in the house and it can’t be resold for several years. “We can use it to help keep families in the county,” Martonis explained. “This is not for flipping properties.”

Martonis said the Land Bank “needs people to go to the website and fill out an application. It shows all the properties — including ones we’ve bought and demolished. The website is www.cattlandbank.org.

“We don’t want these properties to go through another winter,” Martonis said.”That’s why we’re working with Community Action.”

Martonis said a demolition can cost around $20,000 unless the home can’t be inspected for asbestos. If it cannot be checked, a whole home demolition process to contain all the debris and ship it to a special landfill can double the cost.

“If a home was built after 1984, we don’t have to worry about asbestos,” Martonis said. It was outlawed in home construction after that date, he said.

“We got the $1 million grant two years ago and we’re still working off that grant,” Martonis said. “There’s $100,000 for the Land Bank in the 2019 county budget and now we’ve got anther $650,000. We can apply for more at the end of next year.”

County lawmakers, he said, “have been fantastic.” Not only are they backing the Land Bank, they are suggesting properties the Land Bank may want to acquire and demolish or rehabilitate.

“We see results already,” Martonis said. “Neighbors call to thank us for demolishing blighted properties. The sites of demolished homes are offered for sale to neighbors.

The Land Bank has help from the Office of Real Property Tax Services, the Public Works Department in the form of an engineer to assess the properties, Economic Development and the Treasurer’s Office.

“We’re not taking prime properties,” Martonis explained. “There are bad streets in communities where a little work could make it a nice street,” he said. By demolishing a house that can’t be rehabilitated and selling homes that can be rehabilitated will help clean up neighborhoods.

“We want to clean up neighborhoods and get properties back on the tax rolls,” Martonis said.

The Land Bank faces another problem with so-called “zombie homes,” ones owned by a bank which continues to pay property taxes as the homes deteriorate. “The banks don’t return our calls,” Martonis said.

The Land Bank is looking to do an “end-run” around those banks and go directly to the state to force the banks to reply, he said.

(Contact reporter Rick Miller at rmiller@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)