After nearly four years of work, the Pittsburgh Land Bank remains a divisive issue.
Pittsburgh has a lot of vacant land. One way of revitalizing distressed parcels and returning them to the tax rolls is a land bank, which the city has been trying to launch for almost four years.
It was January of 2014 when then-freshman Councilwoman Deb Gross introduced legislation to create a land bank in Pittsburgh. She said she wanted to get vacant and abandoned property into citizens’ hands.
“The process that we had until that point really advantaged people who had more resources and more time and more assets,” she said. “And we’re hoping that this new tool will advantage the neighbors who just want to improve their neighborhood.”
Controlling land goes a long way to determining what a place looks like. Land is everything, said Tara Sherry-Torres, a Pittsburgh Land Bank board member.
“Land is a finite resource,” she said. “You can’t get more land. The land that’s here is the land that’s here. And so it’s an asset that we have to really steward.”
Hammering out how the Pittsburgh Land Bank acquires and sells land and to whom has taken some time. It still isn’t settled, Gross said.
“We just came out of a public hearing and about half the audience was really eager to get started. And the other half of the audience still had some input that they wanted to see represented.”
When the Pittsburgh Land Bank was signed into law in April 2014, it was still mostly an idea: a new nonprofit corporation had to be created and the land bank needed a board. That board met for the first time in 2015 and began laying out in detail how it would operate.
The board presented its plan to City Council last week in a post-agenda meeting. The policies and procedures document spells out exactly how people can move vacant land to productive use. Because as the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Bethany Davidson explained, a land bank is really a washing machine for land.
“It acquires it, it cleans it, and then it sort of holds it, creating the possibility for it become a new future,” she said. “It’s not going to sort your clothes for you, it’s not going to put your outfit together for you, but it’s going to clean the land to get it ready to become something new.”
Land banks can clean properties in three different ways: physically, such as clearing brush or debris; legally, by clearing titles; or financially, by clearing back taxes and liens. And they have an additional special power called priority bid.
Usually when a property goes up for auction, land goes to the highest bidder. But a land bank’s priority bid gives it an edge in that auction. Their bid can prevent a property from being purchased only to stay vacant because the buyer doesn’t have the resources or know-how to clean it physically, legally or financially.
Winnie Branton of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania said a land bank can use its priority bid to make a block by block difference in a neighborhood.
“It’s a limited tool, but it’s a useful tool that when used to advance community goals can really be effective,” she said. “We’re seeing that across the commonwealth with land banks that are up and operational now.”
When it comes time to sell or lease a property, the Pittsburgh Land Bank will consider who the buyer is and what they want to do with the land. Its sale will be prioritized to individuals or groups whose work will further existing neighborhood plans, stabilize a community, bridge funding gaps to preserve property values or leverage federal, state and local funds. To that end, three of the land bank’s board members represent areas of the city with the most vacant parcels, which is meant to ensure that each sale or lease benefits its neighborhood.
At a public meeting on the land bank last week, critics questioned how the nonprofit corporation would interact with city agencies and to whom benefit would accrue. There were also concerns about geographic representation. Councilwoman Darlene Harris said she would like to see a North Sider seated on the board, and Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith argued for someone from her district. The city’s land bank ordinance requires that the board reflect “geographic diversity.”
Gross asked how council and the city should think about measuring success. Diamonte Walker, a land bank board member, suggested evaluating whether the land bank changes how people experience neighborhoods.
“The blight, the abandoned properties, if we can see that start to change at the neighborhood level in alignment with neighborhood vision, I think that is an indicator of success,” she said. “So if that’s five houses in one neighborhood and two vacant lots in another, that’s the measure I think that we need to judge ourselves on.”
If four years seems a long time to still be having these discussions, Pittsburgh is not an outlier. Angel Rodriguez, executive director of the Philadelphia Land Bank, said to keep in mind that it’s all really complicated.
That city’s land bank has existed since 2013, but didn’t sell its first properties until January of this year.
Setting up a land bank is for the long-term, said Rodriguez.
“Understand you’re looking for generational change, not instant change,” he said. “It’s not going to change in two years, but once you get it up and running it will have lasting impact.”
Pittsburgh City Council could approve the land bank’s policies and procedures document next week at its final meeting of the year; it was recommended for approval at a standing committee meeting Wednesday. If Council doesn’t approve, the bill will have to be reintroduced next session. If it does approve, the land bank board can then begin a strategic planning process.
There’s still no timeline for when its first piece of land will be returned to productive use.
UPDATED: This post was updated at 4 p.m., Dec. 20 to reflect recent action by Pittsburgh City Council.