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October 4, 2021 On The Record | Q&A

Hartford Land Bank CEO Arulampalam wants to restore city’s eyesore properties, boost homeownership

HBJ PHOTO | GREG BORDONARO Hartford Land Bank CEO Arunan Arulampalam.

Arunan Arulampalam isn’t afraid to try new career paths.

A lawyer by trade, the Quinnipiac School of Law grad got his start in 2014 performing corporate finance work at Hartford law firm Updike, Kelly & Spellacy P.C. Two years ago he was appointed deputy commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection, putting him second in command in an agency that oversees everything from business licensing to the state’s marijuana industry.

His latest gig is running the Hartford Land Bank, a still relatively new organization that is trying to revitalize the city’s neighborhoods. He was named CEO in July, replacing Carey Shea, who served as interim executive director since February.

The land bank is a nonprofit that identifies and acquires abandoned, tax-delinquent and otherwise distressed properties in the city to facilitate their rehabilitation and return to productive use. Its mission is to not only increase homeownership in the city (at 24%, Hartford has the lowest homeownership rate in the state), but also develop a pipeline of Hartford-based developers who have the skills and capital to turn run-down properties into owner-occupied dwellings.

Arulampalam said he wants to develop a training program that will groom more local developers. He also wants to create a revolving loan fund that will offer low-interest construction loans to help redevelop land bank properties.

The main focus for now is residential properties, but redevelopment of commercial buildings could be part of the long-term plan.

The land bank got its start with $5 million in state funding, but one of Arulampalam’s tasks is to create a long-term business model. Corporate and private-sector donations and state dollars will be part of the equation.

It’s estimated there are hundreds of distressed buildings in Hartford and it will require tens of millions of dollars to revitalize all of them. Mayor Luke Bronin said his hope is that the land bank in the next couple of years is able to redevelop dozens of properties on an annual basis.

“We see it as a critical tool in addressing blight throughout the city,” Bronin said.

Arulampalam, 36, is a married father of five children who lives in the city’s Frog Hollow neighborhood. He recently sat down with HBJ to talk about his new role.

Why did you take the job?

What drew me to the land bank was that I am a Hartford resident. I live in what was an old blighted property that was vacant in a neighborhood that has low homeownership rates.

I’ve lived there for six or seven years and I’ve seen the impact of disinvestment in our neighborhoods, communities and families, and I see the land bank as an opportunity to not just change the facades of these buildings but to really invest in communities to create homeownership opportunities.

I also want to develop a pipeline of city-based developers who can do this work, fix up these properties and build capital off these projects.

What’s the purpose of the land bank?

The purpose, broadly, is to break the cycle of delinquent or abandoned properties being put up for tax sale and then going to out-of-town developers who then continue to underinvest in those properties.

In the long run the goal is to create ownership in our neighborhoods. If you drive down my street, there are only three properties that are owner-occupied and you can tell which ones they are. There is a different level of care that goes into them.

I think the goal for redevelopment in our neighborhoods has to be homeownership, otherwise we will have to be doing the same thing 30, maybe 50 years down the road.

What challenges does the land bank face in redeveloping vacant buildings?

The big issue we have is that the numbers just don’t work to redevelop many of these great, beautiful old properties.

There is a gap between what it costs to redevelop a property and what it can realistically sell for to homeowners. So the system incentivizes low-grade rental units that are owned by out-of-town landlords from places like New York who leech off the residents of Hartford.

We need to figure out how to break this cycle of capital leaving our city while our residents remain in substandard rental housing.

Our big question financially is how do we stimulate local development of these properties while reducing that delta to make homeownership a realistic end result?

The state Department of Housing originally granted the land bank $5 million. I would like to create a revolving loan fund that local developers can tap into to develop land bank properties and a bank of subsidies that provide an opportunity for each developer to build capital on the properties while selling them to homeowners in our city.

Are you looking for annual funding from the city or state?

I think we are going to put together a capital stack that includes maybe a little money from the city, hopefully money from the state, we are applying for a few grants, and some private dollars.

So, it seems like the land bank won’t be the primary developer in most of these projects. Is that right?

We get properties from the city of Hartford and we have some latitude in terms of what we can hypothetically do with them.

We feel like the best use of our resources is to find the right developers to develop those properties. I think that a developer with skin in the game is going to do a much better job than a large nonprofit that hires a general contractor.

I think it will be done more efficiently and create wealth in our communities.

Does Hartford have a strong enough pipeline of local developers right now?

I think the difference between a really good contractor and a good developer is access to capital. I think Hartford has the talent pool but I’m not sure they think of themselves as developers and so we need to bridge that gap and create more developers in the city.

Are you willing to work with non-Hartford developers?

I think there is a preference to work with people based in the city but we also want to make a larger-scale impact so that is certainly not out of the question. We’ve got to take stock of what we have in the city first, then move outward.

Are you looking to have Hartford residents who are renters become owners, or do you want people from outside the city to move in?

I think we want a basket of those things but we are looking to partner with organizations that target Hartford residents who are renters and would like to purchase a property for the first time.

We are also looking for people who are interested in moving into the city of Hartford. The bottom-line goal is to create more owner-occupied buildings.

What has the land bank done so far?

We were initially allocated seven properties from the city. Four of them have either sold or will be selling to developers in the days and weeks ahead.

We have one property, on Magnolia Street, that we had to demolish because of the condition of it. Our hope is to give it to a nearby property owner on Albany Avenue, who owns a mixed-use rental property, to use it as parking.

We’ve got one six-unit property on Holmstead Avenue that is larger and will take significant work. We put out an RFP on that but we didn’t feel like any of the bidders had the capital to do the work we think it needs. So we are reaching out to other sources.

There’s also a single-family house on Martin Street that the land bank is going to work on. We will hire the general contractor and oversee the process.

There aren’t that many developers bidding on properties right now, which tells me there aren’t that many people with access to capital who are able to do this work. We need to work on that.

What’s in the pipeline after those seven properties?

The city council has voted to give us 11 vacant city-owned lots. We got those before I joined the land bank and we are working with the city on the disposition of those lots.

I want to explore the feasibility of infill housing. It’s clearly more expensive. Maybe if we can do something with modular units we can do something that makes sense.

Beyond those 11 lots we will be working with the blight director to identify properties that are really the biggest issues in communities.

So, how would you characterize your top three priorities?

We need to develop a pipeline of developers because that is what is going to make this thing sustainable and allow us to scale up.

Fundraising is another priority, and being able to connect developers with homeowners so developers aren’t holding on to a house for too long.

There’s a major focus on diversity and inclusion right now in the private sector, particularly at major corporations with their philanthropy efforts. Do you view that as a potential opportunity in terms of your fundraising efforts?

Yes, I hope so because I think undoing generations of systemic racism has to start with building capital in communities of color and I think this is one of the best ways we can build capital while also creating housing in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by redlining, Jim Crow and segregation.

I hope this is high on people’s list.

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