Government & Politics
3:30 am
Tue July 1, 2014

Pittsburgh Land Bank Brings New Tools To City's Blight Problem

Ronell Guy and Councilwoman Deborah Gross in the Northside. They say the land bank will help put blighted properties into productive use.
Ronell Guy and Councilwoman Deborah Gross in the Northside. They say the land bank will help put blighted properties into productive use.
Credit Irina Zhorov/90.5 WESA

Ronell Guy oscillated between admiration and admonishment as she drove around the California-Kirkbride neighborhood in the Northside.

Guy, who is the executive director of the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing and an interim board member of the city’s land bank, pointed at blighted properties and vacant lots and then cooed at the possibilities of the abandoned properties.

The coalition has taken it upon itself to maintain the empty lots, many of which are owned by the city, but they currently do so as trespassers, she said. With Pittsburgh’s new land bank, established in April, Guy hopes to reduce her workload and tap the neighborhood’s potential more easily. 

Pittsburgh has nearly 20,000 tax delinquent properties, many of which are abandoned. Councilwoman Deborah Gross, who introduced the city’s land banking legislation, readily admits that right now, getting property out of the limbo of abandonment and into people’s hands is a years-long, complicated process.

Gross said the only properties that make it to treasurer’s sales are those being requested through that long process.

“So no one is just saying here, let’s just clear title to these parcels and just sell them,” she said. 

Fixing that is the land bank’s goal.

How It Works

First, the agency will have to develop an inventory of properties, which it can acquire through donation or purchase. In many cases, owners of tax delinquent property do not want it and do not take care of it.

Frank Alexander, the Co-founder of Center for Community Progress, helped draft the Pennsylvania land bank legislation, which passed in 2012.

“When you have an individual who owns a piece of property, who hasn’t paid the taxes for years, and the taxes are approaching fair market value, we contact those owners and say, ‘Let’s do it the easy way, just give up your property and give it to the land bank,’” Alexander said.

The land bank can then extinguish any back taxes and convey the property to a new owner for productive uses.

A vacant property in the California-Kirkbride neighborhood.
A vacant property in the California-Kirkbride neighborhood.
Credit Jess Lasky/WESA 90.5

The ability to dissolve tax liens, and to do it in bulk, is the core power of the land bank. That way, people purchasing blighted property are actually getting a deal, rather than paying off substantial back taxes.

The land bank’s other big power, said Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, is to control somewhat for who exactly gets those deals.

California-Kirkbride is separated from more vibrant neighborhoods, like Manchester, by railroad tracks. In 1983, a large postal service sorting facility opened up by the tracks, further isolating residents. Guy said when the facility was built, it wasn’t as part of any plan. 

“They just decided these are poor people," she said. "They ain’t going to complain about this huge postal facility coming to our neighborhood.” 

The land bank will play a role in determining what kind of development goes through.

“It mandates a disposition policy so that there’s a public process for saying we want community plans to be recognized, or we prioritize storm water runoff for gardens or farms, or affordable housing or market housing or whatever it is,” Hersh said.   

The idea is to control for speculators and avoid projects the community doesn’t want.

“There’s a process in place to honor the local plan and to set policies about how we use our land,” Hersh said.

More Work To Do

Mayor Bill Peduto signed Pittsburgh’s land bank legislation in April, but so far the organization does not have a permanent board and no policies on the books. That means no plan for how exactly it will be funded, either.

The legislation gives the land bank a five-year period in which it can collect half of the taxes from properties it returns to productive use. That’s one option. Grants, donations, and government funds are other possibilities. 

Guy said once the permanent board is seated, they’ll figure out all that.

Back in the Northside, she pointed the car up a steep hill and drove past a boarded up house onto a grassy knoll overlooking the Ohio River.  

“People think Mount Washington only has views like this,” she said.  

Guy hopes the land bank will help new homeowners take over blighted property in the neighborhood so they can take advantage of such views.