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Development & Transportation

Restoring Pittsburgh’s vacant land to use just got a little bit easier

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Kailey Love
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90.5 WESA

The Pittsburgh Land Bank and Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority have created a process to clear unpaid water and sewage bills on the city’s more than 30,000 distressed properties. The agreement should make it easier to get more properties in the pipeline to be transferred to new users, which officials say makes it possible to support neighborhood-scale projects.

“This will greatly assist the PLB in making vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties available for small-scale development,” said Diamonte Walker, the land bank’s executive director and the deputy director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

The thousands of distressed properties in Pittsburgh typically carry all sorts of unpaid bills, from PWSA fees to school, city, and county taxes. Eventually, those government agencies and utilities will put a “lien” on the property, which complicates efforts to do anything with the property: In order to sell, all liens have to be taken care of. The process of clearing them away is complicated, expensive, and can take months.

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Katie Blackley
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90.5 WESA

Before the new agreement between PLB and PWSA, there was no process to clear back-debt held by the utility on properties, said PWSA’s chief executive officer Will Pickering. Instead, the city would occasionally ask PWSA to consider canceling debt to allow a sale. The agency’s collections department would then research the land to see if there were some way to collect the debt or whether it would be best to wipe the slate clean.

PWSA will still need to review the debt on properties the land bank would like to clear, but simply having a clear process will save time, Pickering said. In addition, PLB is prioritizing clearing debt from properties that are likely to be sold, redeveloped, and begin to generate taxes — as well as water and sewer fees.

While the two government agencies have a plan, the agreement does not actually clear away the liens. Instead, the PLB will begin to submit small groups of properties for consideration.

PWSA may try to recoup some debt during the land bank’s sale of a property, but “the last thing we want to do is to stand in the way of a productive use of a property that may be creating blight in a neighborhood,” Pickering said. “We want to be partners in neighborhoods.”

Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission oversees PWSA, and approved the agreement last month.

The land bank continues to work on other operating agreements with the city, Allegheny County and Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Corrected: January 12, 2022 at 10:50 AM EST
This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. on Jan. 12, 2022 to correct Will Pickering's title; he is chief executive officer of PWSA.