Why has the Pittsburgh Land Bank failed to meet expectations this year?

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This story was originally published by PublicSource, a press partner of NEXTpittsburgh. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization that offers local journalism at publicsource.org. You can sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.

By Eric Jankiewicz

Since the decline of steel and coal, Pittsburgh has seen waves of depopulation still visible through thousands of abandoned and vacant properties buried in tax debt with no one to pay it.

Many so-called Rust Belt towns facing similar problems have created land banks, organizations with the power to erase debt and taxes from derelict properties and sell them.

Pittsburgh formed one in 2014, but it gained little ground by reclaiming more than 20,000 vacant or abandoned properties in the city. By the end of 2021, however, Pittsburgh Land Bank officials were optimistic that millions of dollars in federal funds and a new full-time manager would help make 2022 the year of progress.

The organization hired new staff, and the city allocated $10 million through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). But federal funds sit in city bank accounts, according to City Comptroller Michael Lamb, pending action by the land bank or the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to access them. Local governments must spend or allocate ARPA funds by the end of 2024.

As this year draws to a close, the Landbank Council discussed which conventions its members should attend, even as neighboring landbank Tri-COG moves forward with putting derelict properties into private hands. . The Pittsburgh Land Bank has not processed or transferred any properties this year, and its inventory consists of a house in Mount Washington currently held by the URA.

Each year, the city spends nearly $2 million on code enforcement, police and fire departments on abandoned properties, according to a 2017 report from the Center for Community Progress.

At the Nov. 4 board meeting, new landbank director Sally Stadelman, responding to a question from a member of the public, said the landbank would not be able to make deals. with local tax agencies to clean properties of tax debt without the passage of state legislation. The legislation would make a number of technical changes to the Land Bank Act, including allowing the Pittsburgh agency to pursue ownership of property through the sheriff’s sale — a power the state has given to d other municipalities but not in Pittsburgh. The city is now selling tax-delinquent properties through its own Treasurer’s Sale process, outlined in state law.

Sally Stadelman at the Pittsburgh Land Bank meeting on October 7. Photo by Lilly Kubit/PublicSource.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, a former Pittsburgh Land Bank board member who sponsored the bill, said in an interview that the bill is unlikely to pass due to the Republican opposition.

“We’ll have to find another way to skin the cat,” Fontana said. “But the land bank can’t use the excuse that the bill didn’t pass so they don’t start cleaning up the properties.”

The bill would speed up the process, but is not essential.

“A successful land bank requires financial and leadership commitment, then go for it,” he said.

On Nov. 4, Mayor Ed Gainey commented on the land reservation in a conversation with three people, including a PublicSource reporter. He said the land bank needed to be completely redone, including removing the Pittsburgh City Council’s participation on the board. He noted his office was approaching the issue through negotiation but declined to elaborate.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime check through ARPA, and I’m excited to see how these investments are paying off and what it means for long-term neighborhood stability,” said Ed Nusser, executive director of the non-profit city. of Bridges Community Land Trust, which works with neighborhood organizations to create affordable housing.

Nusser said that ideally land banks and land trusts “can have a really symbiotic relationship.”

He described his organization as a promoter of affordable housing throughout the region. Their challenge is often to access the property to redevelop it into affordable housing. Having an operational land bank would give City of Bridges a reliable source to acquire property.

“So land trusts can come in and take ownership from the land bank and ensure those homes remain affordable forever,” he said.

“We are definitely at an inflection point and we have activists, organizers and grassroots people who have been shouting from the rooftops for six years that we need to get things done, and I think people are finally listening now. ”

Land reserve potential “frustrating and exciting”

Since its creation, the land reserve has not sold any property.

The URA, the city’s economic development arm, became an affiliate of the land bank in 2021 and officials at the time hailed this as a step towards land bank efficiency. The URA declined to comment for this story and declined to allow Stadelman, the land bank’s new director, to comment. Stadelman was previously chief of staff to Councilman Bobby Wilson, who is a member of the land bank’s board of directors.

Councilman Ricky Burgess, chairman of the land bank’s board, said he hoped they would find a way forward, but so far “we haven’t found ways to get a title, and that can be long and expensive”.

Pittsburgh Land Bank Chairman of the Board, Reverend Ricky Burgess, at a meeting Oct. 7. Photo by Lilly Kubit/PublicSource.

Nusser pointed out that the nearby Tri-COG Land Bank is paving the way for success.

“It’s been so frustrating and exciting,” Nusser said. “We can look around and see what the potential for a city-level land bank might be and we could get things done now for the benefit of many of our neighborhoods and communities.”

What is the combination to unlock the land bank?

Fontana wondered why the Land Preserve was not actively using available federal funds. He asked, “The $10 million in ARPA funds, where are they?”

Lamb noted that the money was ready to be transferred. The URA or land bank need only request this and provide a plan on how they intend to use the money.

“If the land bank came up with a use for the $10 million, we would give it directly to them, but that hasn’t happened yet,” Lamb said.

Fontana said the fact that several land bank board members sit on the city council makes the issue more complicated. Three council members – Wilson, Burgess and R. Daniel Lavelle – sit on the nine-seat council.

“You have to tone down the political aspect,” Fontana said. “You need a city-wide approach, start the process and stay engaged.”

Jamil Bey, Vice Chairman of the Landbank Board, made a similar assessment.

“There should be no elected officials on the land reserve,” he said. “You are introducing politics into a system that is supposed to be efficient and transactional.”

Bey is also President and CEO of the UrbanKind Institute.

Jamil Bey, vice chairman of the Pittsburgh Land Bank board, at a meeting Oct. 7. Photo by Lilly Kubit/PublicSource.

The Board is currently voting on proposed transfers of tax-delinquent property to private owners.

Bey said council members believed the land reserve “was going to take power away from the city council.”

Burgess countered that everything would be more difficult if the city council did not sit on the land bank’s board of directors.

“If you take us out of the land bank, you might have a board that’s less likely to work with the land bank and that will make the process more difficult,” Burgess said. “The city council retains control of the land and has a council on the [land bank] the board helps ensure that the board approves the layout [of properties]. Not having a board will make the process more complicated and bifurcated. »

A resolution introduced by the Gainey administration to city council in May that would allow shared services and property transfers between the city, URA and land reserve did not get a final vote.

The active land reserve next door

An Lewis, executive director of Tri-COG Land Bank, said her organization has been dealing with properties for five years, “creating a pipeline of properties and figuring out… how to identify them and get them through the legal process to clear titles” .

Since its inception in 2017, the Tri-COG has owned 85 properties and sold 35 properties. They are in the process of acquiring 64 other properties.

The Tri-COG acquires most of its properties through a tax seizure handled by the sheriff’s sale.

“The important thing,” Lewis said, “is creating good, strong policies that allow people access to our real estate and vet buyers so that we don’t inadvertently sell to an irresponsible landlord.”

Tri-COG works with 26 municipalities primarily east of Pittsburgh. Derelict properties rack up unpaid tax bills, preventing private investors from buying because they would have to pay those taxes. Key to Tri-COG’s success, Lewis said, has been reaching agreements with local tax agencies to waive those overdue property, municipal and school taxes.

“All these overdue taxes, these unpaid garbage bills, all these debts need to be canceled before we get involved,” Lewis said.

“Our land bank,” she continued, “is an agile and flexible tool, and we had to learn what a municipality’s goals are and create a land bank strategy based on that. That’s the fun thing about this job: this tool is so flexible. »

Wilson said he and other Pittsburgh Land Bank board members expect to work on a strategic plan next year and figure out how to use the $10 million in federal funds.

“My mind is set on making it work,” Wilson said.

Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter and can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

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