Land bank hearing draws overflow crowd

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With 68 speakers scheduled, observers and late-comers spilled into the hallway outside Pittsburgh City Council chambers during a rare evening public hearing on proposed land banking legislation.

The four-hour marathon saw citizens, developers, CDC representatives and community advocates chiming in. Now council has to digest what they heard before amending, scrapping or approving, as-is, the legislation that would cede city development decisions and oversight to a new authority.

In a nutshell, the Pittsburgh Land Bank would be a seven-member board that could acquire, lease and resell tax-delinquent properties in an expedited manner. Proponents say it is a welcome tool to combat the city’s growing number of blighted properties.

Opponents, however, say there are no safeguards against gentrification that could lead to unaffordable tax rates for elderly and low-income homeowners. Roughly half the “bankable” land is in the city’s poor, Black neighborhoods.

On the morning of the Feb. 20 hearing, city Councilman Danny Lavelle sent out a press release reminding his constituents that the board, as proposed, would have “no formal oversight or checks and balances from city council or the community.”

In its current form, four of the board members would be named by the mayor and three by council. But as Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess noted in a January conversation with the New Pittsburgh Courier, there is no guarantee any of the three council-nominated members would represent any of the Black neighborhoods containing the bulk of the eligible properties.

Community Empowerment Association CEO Rashad Byrdsong recommended an amendment to expand the board to 11 members with four chosen by a community Land Bank Task Force.

Per the legislation, funding for the Land Bank, which would include operational expenses and salaries for an executive director and an unspecified number of staff, “may” come from a variety of sources–federal, state, county or city grants and loans, commission on the disposal of property, insurance, etc.

However, it could also be funded by allocating city real estate taxes, or directly through contributions to the annual land bank budget from the City, the County, and the School District budgets.

In that case, the city would be paying three offices–the real estate office, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and, if approved, the land bank–to buy, sell, develop and/or dispose of property.

Byrdsong, who was pleased with the turnout from the community, said no one really addressed paying for the land bank.

“I don’t think anyone really wants to see the budget pay a new entity to seize tax-delinquent property, sell it, and receive the future tax receipts,” he said. “Look, the issue of blight in the Black neighborhoods has to be addressed, but I’m not sure this is the best way. I mean, the maintenance costs for all these properties is near $20 million a year and the city’s not paying that now. But at least they know all eyes are on them now, from Hazelwood to the North Side.”

Councilwoman Deb Gross, who introduced the legislation said she is already in discussion with community partners about amendments to the bill to make it work for all Pittsburghers.

“People have concerns in three main area: governance, how it will be run; transparency, what is going on with properties in my neighborhood, and public input and accountability,” she said. “We’re getting emails almost daily about how we can improve this. We want it to be empowering for our neighborhoods.”

Gross said it will take a few weeks to work out the amendments, then a post agenda hearing will be scheduled in council to hear additional more detailed testimony.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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