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Pittsburgh 'mimics' a functioning land bank, but needs help to be effective

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
This lot in Brighton Heights is one of more than 30,000 distressed properties in the City of Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh Land Bank made strides this year — adding full-time staff, gaining access to administrative support as an affiliate entity of the Urban Redevelopment Authority — but officials say that was just setting the stage.

“The real issue we’re trying to address is blight,” said Diamonte Walker, head of the land bank, and deputy executive director of the URA. “This continues to be a pox on our house, we have to figure this out.”

Using URA funds to stand up the agency “to mimic what a functioning land bank can do” was a win, Walker said. But “The real win is going to be fixing the legislation … to bring land back to productive use.”

Two pieces of legislation intended to do that are stuck in committee in Harrisburg.

Right now, state law requires Pittsburgh to use a much longer and more expensive process to clear the back taxes on a parcel of land, ensure there’s a clear legal title, and sell it to someone who has a plan to restore it, whether to build a community garden, a house, or some other approved project. The first state law the board of the Pittsburgh Land Bank would like to see passed is Senate Bill 811, an amendment to Municipal Claim and Tax Lien Law, or MCTLL, would allow Pittsbugh and other municipalities in Allegheny County, to use the more streamlined process that’s already in effect in Philadelphia.

State Senator Wayne Fontana introduced SB 811 in June, and it was referred to the Urban Affairs and Housing Committee in July; it’s been there ever since.

"That’s one of the issues in Harrisburg, it’s so partisan," Fontana said. "Both of these bills don’t hurt anybody ... they’re fair to everybody."

Fontana said the longer distressed property sits idle, the more it deteriorates, and the more expensive it is for the city or the URA or the land bank to maintain. Pittsburgh’s Land Bank is working with limited funds to try to return 30,000 distressed parcels to the tax rolls.

“The time is so costly here,” he said. “Anything we can do to expedite that, and that’s what this bill is intended to do, helps.”

The second bill is one that would shield Pennsylvania land banks from environmental liability on small, neighborhood-scale sites that used to be gas stations or dry cleaners. That would allow them to hold the land without incurring massive costs, as they work with future developers on a plan to remediate the site. Representative Austin Davis introduced House Bill 610 in March, and it emerged from committee this fall. No vote has yet been taken.

Walker said it is critical to see both bills, especially MCTLL, pass, and that she remains optimistic. However, she believes as the Pittsburgh Land Bank begins to gain speed, the conversation needs to focus on the purpose of the land bank: addressing blight and the harm it causes.

“If we understand that to be the problem we’re actually trying to solve, I think that the other protracted issues start to remedy themselves, because a lot of them are process-oriented.”

Locally, the land bank still needs to finalize an agreement among the three taxing bodies — city, county, and school board — about how they will handle clearing of back taxes on distressed land. In addition, the land bank is working to streamline the process of transferring land between the URA, the city, and the land bank.