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There have long been rumors that developers would move on plans to seize the flat land of Homewood and push out the large Black population. Now, according to Pittsburgh Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess, such a plan has not only been written down, it’s been introduced in council.

On Jan. 22, newly elected Councilwoman Deb Gross introduced a bill to create a Land Bank that would allow faster acquisition of tax delinquent properties, as well as city and authority-owned properties, for redevelopment. A bill passed in Harrisburg last year authorizes the creation of such entities.

And while Burgess supports the general idea—having introduced a land banking bill of his own last year—he told the New Pittsburgh Courier that the details of this particular proposal would “realize the fears of people that someone could steal their land.”

“I am not opposed to land banks, and I’m pleased the state legislature gave us this tool, but there have to be protections and, frankly, profits for the communities affected,” he said. “The vast majority of the bankable properties, which the city can’t maintain now, are in African-American neighborhoods—50 percent of Homewood is eligible, 45 percent of the Hill, 50 percent of Larimer, 54 percent of California-Kirkbride—these people should have a say in how those properties are developed.”

Gross’ legislation has no such safeguards, he said. Property in the land bank would be controlled by an autonomous board comprised of four members selected by the mayor and three by council.  Thus, there is no guarantee of representation by residents of the areas most affected.

Burgess summed up the problem this way:

“If I said I was going to take 50 percent of Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Oakland and the South Side Flats and give it to poor Blacks to control and distribute, what do you suppose the reaction would be?” he said.

Another problem with the structure of the Land Bank in Gross’ legislation is that the board is not required to vote on the disposition of any banked property under $50,000 in value.  Hired staff can move such properties. In the case of Homewood, one could move a lot of properties at a time.

“So you have an unaccountable board delegating authority—that now rests with council—to even more unaccountable employees,” said Burgess. “That’s unacceptable. I am unwilling to give up my council oversight of land in my district.”

The other issue Burgess wants addressed is community benefit.  The state Land Bank Act requires that any properties acquired by the bank be maintained, be they structures or vacant lots. Burgess said those maintenance jobs should go to community residents, especially when the bulk of the bankable property is in Black neighborhoods with the highest unemployment.

“On the bright side, these are fixable problems, and I thank my colleagues for letting me speak to these issues, “ he said. “I will be offering amendments on ensuring council oversight, community participation and community benefits.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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