After months of calling a proposed Pittsburgh Land Bank bill “carpetbagging,” and saying it was vehicle to steal property from residents in mostly poor Black neighborhoods, Pittsburgh Council members Rev. Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle voted in favor of the bill.
The last minute adoption of amendments that increase owner/occupant protection from seizure, increase the number of board members and maintain council oversight for at least two years–which were Lavelle and Burgess’ major objections–was enough to sway almost everyone on council.
“We got council oversight, hardship exemptions for owner/occupants, increased say on the board. So in the end, all three things I asked for were there,” said Burgess. “And I will work with the administration to make sure the land bank works appropriately.”
Mayor Bill Peduto released a statement after last week’s preliminary vote thanking Councilwoman Deb Gross for introducing the legislation and Councilman Cory O’Connor for working with her to refine the bill.
“This Land bank will become an important and powerful tool in our efforts to empower residents to take back control of their neighborhoods from slumlords and speculators,” he said. “To foster homeownership and wealth-building in our struggling communities, and to bring new investment into areas of the city that have been left behind.”
In the end the only councilmember who remained opposed was Darlene Harris. Hers was the lone ‘no’ vote, as the measure passed 8-1.
Supporters say the land bank will help curb blight allow for faster acquisition and disposal of tax-delinquent and abandoned properties. It could move to seize property if the owner falls more than a year behind in their property taxes. This, they argue will attract private investors looking to build homes.
The land bank will also acquire large amounts of blighted property currently owned by the city and its Urban Redevelopment Authority. While this would effectively remove a huge debt from the city’s ledger, it also highlights one of the issues left unresolved in the bill–maintenance.
Burgess noted that the city has not maintained the blighted property it owns, but the land bank is required to do so under the enabling state legislation passed in 2012. He said the annual budget for that would be $20 million.
Though Gross and O’Connor amended the legislation to require the land bank to hire companies and individuals from the effected neighborhoods to maintain and renovate properties, nowhere does it say how such contracts would be paid for.
In fact, council approved this bill without any provision for how the land bank would be funded. It may receive grants, foundation seed money, or it may even receive 50 percent of any city taxes paid on the property it acquires. It may also be funded directly by the city, which already funds a real estate office and the URA to acquire, disburse and develop property. None of this is spelled out.
Burgess said he has some ideas on federal and/or state funding that he plans to discuss with the administration.
“We’re going to have to be creative,” he said.
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