Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Mayor Ed Gainey proposes to slash the land bank budget

A garage next to two brick buildings.
Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
The Pittsburgh Land Bank sold its first property, located in Mount Washington, last month, nearly a decade after the agency was created.

Mayor Ed Gainey’s office has introduced a plan to cut the Pittsburgh Land Bank budget from $7 million to just half that. But city officials stress the move is animated not by a lack of faith in the agency, but rather a lack of time.

Funding for the land bank’s budget comes entirely from federal American Rescue Plan dollars. By law that COVID-19 aid must be spent, or under contract to be spent, by the end of 2024. (Any contracts must be paid out by 2026).

The proposal, part of an amended ARPA spending plan submitted by the mayor’s office to City Council on Tuesday, is a bid to ensure the city doesn’t lose any of that federal money.

“As a kind of legal and accounting question, it might not be the land bank that can process all $7 million,” said Jake Pawlak, deputy mayor and head of the office of management and budget.

The land bank has been confounded by a number of bureaucratic delays, and the city still hasn’t passed an agreement that would allow the land bank, the city, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority to more easily — and predictably — move property between them.

“So the question was, how can we most effectively and efficiently work this together?” said City Councilor Daniel Lavelle, who is also a land bank board member.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

The plan is to split the money between the URA and the land bank, which is an affiliate entity of the larger agency. As the land bank uses its special powers to clear tangled property titles, the URA can stabilize land. That could mean clearing out old bits of foundation, or even putting a new roof on an endangered building. No matter which agency is doing the work, Pawlak said everyone is “aiming in the same direction”

The land bank did not respond by deadline to an interview request for manager Sally Stadelman. And a required public hearing on the amended ARPA spending plan has yet to be scheduled. But after nearly a decade, the land bank sold its first property last month, and officials expect to continue to gain momentum as the last few administrative hurdles are cleared.

Lavelle’s support for shifting funds from the land bank may seem surprising. Lavelle, who is also a URA board member, had been bullish about the land bank’s ability to spend any money the city sent its way. Initially, at the end of 2022, the land bank board approved a $10 million, four-year budget, but was forced to scale back when the city then cut its allocation to $7 million in 2023.

But Lavelle said having the agreement between the land bank and other agencies is important. While each entity has its strength in putting properties back to use, it’s the land bank that is empowered to clear tangled property titles more quickly. Most of the time, clear title paves the way for other actions, such as stabilizing a distressed building or starting a sales process.

“We’ll be able to become much more functional once that agreement is in place,” Lavelle said. But it’s “been close to a year now that we’ve been waiting for that.”

City Council will hold a hearing on the agreement on July 20. But there have been signs of progress in the effort to combat blight.

Another long-awaited tool, the ability to buy property through the sheriff’s sale process, was just approved by state lawmakers at the beginning of the month with passage of an amendment to the Municipal Claims and Tax Lien Law. Properties bought at sheriff’s sale are generally more affordable, and come with a clear title.

Combined with changes in city hall — including the hiring of a lawyer just for real estate questions — Pittsburgh is finally prepared to “take a real whack at our challenge of vacant property that’s been accumulating since the decline of steel and the population shock that that caused,” Pawlak said.

“We’ve been mostly triaging that issue for decades,” said Pawlak, “and we’re really starting to be in a position where we can turn the tide.”