Account overdue: Frustration mounts among some who have been banking on a land bank — for 8 years

The Pittsburgh Land Bank is listed in property records as owning one property, this vacant lot at 243 Meadow St. in Larimer, as photographed on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The Pittsburgh Land Bank has $10 million allocated to it … and one property listed in its inventory. Neighborhood advocates and officials await the plan.

by Eric Jankiewicz, PublicSource

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

Many so-called Rust Belt cities facing similar problems created land banks, organizations with the power to clear debt and taxes from abandoned properties and sell them. 

Pittsburgh formed one in 2014, but it gained little traction in reclaiming the more than 20,000 vacant or abandoned properties within the city. At the end of 2021, though, officials with the Pittsburgh Land Bank 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 earmarked $10 million through the American Rescue Plan Act [ARPA].

But the federal funds sit in the city’s bank accounts, according to City Controller Michael Lamb, awaiting action from the land bank or the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] to access it. Local governments must spend or allocate ARPA funds by the end of 2024. As this year nears its close, the land bank board has discussed which conventions its members should attend, even as the neighboring Tri-COG Land Bank moves forward with putting abandoned properties in private hands. The Pittsburgh Land Bank hasn’t processed or transferred any properties this year, and its inventory consists of one house in Mount Washington currently owned by the URA. 

Every year, the city spends almost $2 million on code enforcement, police and fire services on abandoned properties, according to a 2017 report by the Center for Community Progress

During the board’s Nov. 4 meeting, the land bank’s new manager, Sally Stadelman, responding to a question from a member of the public, said that the land bank wouldn’t be able to come to agreements with local taxing bodies to clear properties of tax debt without the passage of state legislation. The proposed bill would make a number of technical changes in land banking law, including allowing Pittsburgh’s agency to pursue ownership of property via sheriff’s sale – a power the state has given to other municipalities but not to the city. The city now sells tax-delinquent properties through its own treasurer’s sale process, outlined in state law.

On Nov. 4, Mayor Ed Gainey commented on the land bank during a conversation with three people including a PublicSource reporter. He said the land bank needed to be completely redone, including the removal of Pittsburgh City Council’s involvement on the board. He noted that his office is addressing the issue through negotiation but declined to elaborate. His office did not respond by Nov. 9 to requests for details. 

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime check through ARPA, and I’m excited to see how those investments pay off and what that means for neighborhood stability in the long term,” said Ed Nusser, director of real estate with the nonprofit City of Bridges Community Land Trust, which works with neighborhood organizations to create affordable housing.

Pittsburgh Land Bank Board Chair Rev. Ricky Burgess during an Oct. 7, 2022, meeting. (Photo by Lilly Kubit/PublicSource) 

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