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The Not Yet Functional Pittsburgh Land Bank May Join Forces With The URA

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Nearly a quarter of Pittsburgh's land is vacant or abandoned property.

The Pittsburgh Land Bank, created in 2014, has yet to buy, clear, and sell a single piece of property. At its January meeting the land bank's board is expected to vote on whether to make it an “affiliate entity” of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. While the PLB has worked with the URA since its inception under a memorandum of agreement, proponents say officially enmeshing with the agency would allow the land bank to gain better access to resources, such as at-cost legal services and a full-time staff member.

In an August interview Mayor Bill Peduto called the land bank “one of the failures of his administration,” and said his office was working to find a solution.

Lindsay Powell is the mayor’s deputy chief of staff and works on the land bank. She attributed the hold-up to the sheer volume of vacant properties in the city when compared to other cities of similar size.

“There’s a lot of passion and movement behind this, but it has been slower-moving just because it is a heavier lift than it is in other cities,” she said.

In addition, Powell said while working on the land bank they’ve discovered things that are broken within the real estate transaction processes, and are working to untangle those, too.

“This process has not been just to get a land bank out there,” she said. “But how do we do land maintenance, land stewardship better?”

The unique power of a land bank is its ability to clear back taxes and other liens. In addition, it can be kind of choosy about who gets to buy the land it holds. While the City of Pittsburgh has to accept the highest bid for land it’s selling, a land bank can convey the land to someone with a lower bid but a proposal that benefits a neighborhood.

The idea is to return land to the control of neighborhood groups and residents to help meet priorities in their communities, whether that’s building affordable housing, creating urban farms or parklets, or helping to manage stormwater.

That was a major selling point in Pittsburgh, where nearly 20 percent of the city’s land is vacant. Much of it is concentrated in neighborhoods such as the Hill District and Homewood, communities that bore the brunt of decades of disinvestment and racist land-use policies.

The land bank hasn’t delivered on that promise, said Democratic state senator Wayne Fontana, who is also a land bank board member.

“It’s taken too long,” he said. “We’re at the point now where we have to decide, you know, what the future is.”

Fontana said the land bank has never had the leadership or funding it needs.

Board member Jamil Bey, who runs the nonprofit UrbanKind Institute, agreed the land bank is simply not a priority for the mayor or for the chair of the land bank board, Councilor Ricky Burgess.

“If it were, it would be done by now,” he said. Instead, Bey said they’ve seen delay after delay and been stymied by disagreements and personality conflicts. “It’s shameful … that we are no closer to doing anything right.”  

Furthermore, Bey worries the very structure of the land bank board — three members appointed by the mayor, three members appointed by council, and three geographically diverse members appointed by the other six — prevents it from fulfilling its promise.

“It gives those council people power, it contributes to their power,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to concede that chip.”

None of the city councilors who are members of the land bank board — Burgess, Council President Theresa Kail-Smith and Councilor Daniel Lavelle — responded to requests for comment.

When Councilor Deb Gross first introduced the legislation in 2014 it was met with considerable opposition from all three of her colleagues now on the board. They worried a non-elected board would have too much unchecked power. A late amendment that ensured council representation put the legislation over the finish line, but seeded the long-running concern about politicization of the land bank.

Gross said best practices from national organizations say land banks should be independent nonprofits, separate from elected officials.

But “I’ve come to see both sides on that,” she said. “We can’t really know if keeping it more independent … would have made it more functional.”

While the issues that face the land bank are complex, Gross said the city must move forward; the problems won’t be solved just by talking about them.  

“Start small, start somewhere,” she said. “You don’t have to solve every problem all at once.”

Gross said the fastest route to get the land bank moving would probably be to join up with the URA, a surprising vote of confidence from a long-time critic of the agency.

“What I’ve seen them doing in the last year is return to investing in real people, in our city neighborhoods,” she said. “I’m enthused by that new emphasis.”

Bey said, at this point, there doesn’t seem to be any other viable alternative.

If the land bank’s board approves the transition to become an affiliate entity of the URA it would retain its own board. In a parallel effort to jumpstart the land bank, its board voted in November to approve the position of a full-time land bank manager; the job was posted early in December.