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Legislation to help Pittsburgh's land bank continues to worry city council members

Looking down city steps towards houses in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood has a number of vacant or blighted homes that could benefit from land bank legislation.

Nearly every speaker at a Pittsburgh City Council hearing Thursday urged members to advance an agreement between the city, its Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Pittsburgh Land Bank that aims to make it easier and more predictable to move land between them.

Supporters like Ed Nusser, who runs the City of Bridges Community Land Trust, said the tri-party cooperation agreement is critical to creating a “fully functional, empowered land bank.”

“This is what our neighborhoods deserve,” he said. “Vacancy and blight have robbed generations of Pittsburghers of wealth and equity for far too long. It’s time to correct it.”
Each member of the agreement has distinct processes that govern how it sells the land it holds. Depending on the requested end use of a publicly owned property — a commercial development versus a community garden — the agency where that land resides may not have the best process to move it forward. The point of amending the cooperation agreement, administration and URA officials told council last month, is to efficiently get the land to the entity best-suited to get it cleaned up, sold and back on the tax rolls.

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The promise of the land bank is twofold: It can more quickly clear tangled property titles, and it has a sales process targeted at neighborhood groups and individuals.

Council must “work to provide a pathway to actualizing [the land bank’s] land-recycling capabilities,” said Tyler Schaub, strategic engagement manager for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. “The proposed tri-party cooperation agreement is an opportunity for city council to align itself with the voices of their constituents, and to stand with the organizations working to provide for the communities of Pittsburgh.”

That sentiment was echoed by many speakers: The tri-party cooperation agreement is a critical step in making sure the land bank can function as intended so communities don’t have to bear the burden of blight and vacancy, which have been shown to have all sorts of negative impacts on residents.

“Crime, community deterioration, anxiety, depression and obesity,” said Gabrielle Walker of Operation Better Block in Homewood. “The city council disinvestment to collaborate and institute a land bank system that works effectively and inclusively with community organizations is an injustice to Homewood residents.”

Councilor Barb Warwick said the similarity between different speakers’ comments worried her.

“Almost verbatim, you guys are all saying the same thing, and to me, as someone with a marketing background, that speaks to some top-notch marketing work at the land bank,” she said.

That comment caught Schaub of PCRG off-guard, he said. While he certainly works with his member organizations to educate people about the process of the land bank and its complexity, that’s “based solely on our own policy agenda and our own understanding of the land bank,” he said, speaking after the meeting. “We are never working with the land bank to inform our talking points.”

However, he agreed with Warwick’s later comment that amending the tri-party cooperation agreement is not some sort of panacea.

Instead, amending the agreement is simply “the first step towards having that functioning, effective land bank,” he said.

The land bank still needs to negotiate an agreement with the three taxing bodies — the city, Allegheny County, and Pittsburgh Public Schools — about how clearing back taxes will work for each of them. In addition, Schaub said PCRG recommends that the land bank renegotiate its agreement with Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority about what happens to those liens when a property’s title is cleared.

“That is where the land bank will actualize its title clearing powers,” he said, and “that’s really important because that is really why [the land bank] exists.”

Though a cooperation agreement between the city, URA, and land bank has existed since 2019, the land bank wasn’t quite a full member: it is not able to request property directly from the other two entities, instead having to do so through a council member. That loss of involvement and control are of primary concern to Councilors Warwick, Theresa Kail-Smith and Deb Gross.

Furthermore, Gross and Warwick worry that council cannot direct who will ultimately buy a piece of property. In particular, Gross has used a hypothetical of a farmer who has stewarded land for many years and wants to buy it from the land bank. While it is likely the land would be sold to that person, legally, it cannot be guaranteed. That’s because the land bank has an entire disposition process that allows people to object and throw their hat in the ring for a piece of land. Those rules and processes took years to create and win approval from the land bank board.

The tri-party agreement makes no changes to the land bank’s sales process.

Ultimately, it seems city council members expect to move the tri-party agreement forward. Gross has introduced some amendments that add further checks to the new agreement. She summarized the intent as “to put more legal guarantees that you’re going to get what you expect from the Pittsburgh Land Bank.”

The legislation will be discussed during council’s standing committee meeting on Wednesday next week.