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Pittsburgh’s Land Bank attempts to pick up speed

A garage next to two brick buildings.
Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh's Land Bank sold its very first property in June 2023, nearly 10 years after the agency was created. The Mount Washington Community Development Corporation bought 6 Boggs Avenue to convert into a food bank with an apartment on top. The PLB hopes a new cooperation agreement with the city and URA will allow them to buy and sell many more properties to community groups in the coming years.

Pittsburgh City Council will hold the first of two meetings on Tuesday to consider a new process for how the city, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the Pittsburgh Land Bank work together to put city land back on the tax rolls.

Each of the three entities can and do sell land, and they have their own unique processes for doing so. The proposed legislation, called the “tri-party cooperation agreement,” governs how they interact when one has land another wants, said Jake Pawlak, deputy mayor and head of the office of management and budget.

“The idea behind this agreement is just to establish a standardized and simplified process,” he said.

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Mayor Ed Gainey introduced the amendments more than a year ago. When council discussed the proposed agreement at its June 1, 2022 meeting, a few members worried that vast amounts of land could be sold without council approval.

Since then, Pawlak said the administration has held two briefings with council to answer any questions, and stressed that there would be “full oversight and approval from the public bodies that manage that process.”

“The purpose of this agreement is not to eliminate any of the transparency or the public process from the transfer of these properties,” he added.

The URA, of which the land bank is an affiliate entity, did not respond to an interview request for Land Bank Manager Sally Stadelman.

Land bank board member Jamil Bey said he has no qualms about the legislation.

“There are definitely enough checks and balances to prevent anything from happening where neighborhoods can be put up for sale,” he said.

Council member Bobby Wilson, who is also a member of the Pittsburgh Land Bank board, said the current process has far too much red tape. If the land bank wants to buy property from the city, it has to ask a council member to put up legislation. But under the amended agreement, everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and “we can build an equitable system of how properties are requested.”

Still, the larger enterprise of selling city land can be fraught: Land is a finite and valuable resource, one that determines what any given neighborhood may look like in the future. Meanwhile, in the present, the existing 30,000 or so distressed and vacant parcels in Pittsburgh can create serious headaches.

Fallow land and empty structures drag down property values and can be linked to worse health outcomes and greater instances of crime. Pittsburgh is one of the largest owners of distressed property in the city, but most of the land doesn’t have clear title, and carries tax liens, all of which makes a bumpy road to a sale.

When city council created the Pittsburgh Land Bank in 2014, the intent was to help address some of the barriers to returning property to the tax rolls. Under state law, land banks enjoy special powers when it comes to untangling title and clearing tax liens, and they are not required to sell land to the highest bidder as the city is under the treasurer’s sale process. This makes it possible to help community groups and individuals identify land critical to their communities and buy it for reasonable costs.

Under old cooperation agreements, first created in 1998, then amended in 2017 and 2019, land could be set aside through something called the property reserve. It was a subset of city-owned property that was understood to be earmarked for community groups or other site assembly initiatives. When it seemed as though the land bank would be up and transacting in 2020, the city elected to freeze that process.

Pawlak said the intent moving forward now is not to limit the avenues to sell city property, but the opposite.

“Our perspective is an all-of-the above” approach, he said.

The city is required to sell to the highest bidder, and the URA requires many rounds of financial documents and oversight. Some projects may not be suited to either, Pawlak said, and that’s where “the land bank’s state-enabled sales process is kind of Goldilocks, just-right” process.

After council’s meeting on Tuesday, a public hearing must still be held before any agreement could be finalized. But those who spoke to WESA said they hope council will move forward: Until a new cooperation agreement is signed, the land bank cannot use the $7 million in federal pandemic funding that the city approved for it. In addition, Pawlak said the administration has waited to appoint new land bank board members to represent Allegheny County and Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Those appointments will be critical as the land bank moves on to its next big task: signing a new agreement between the three taxing bodies for how to handle the forgiveness of liens on distressed properties when they’re sold.

Corrected: June 13, 2023 at 9:56 AM EDT
Updated to remove duplicate paragraphs.