Pittsburgh’s land bank completed its first property sale Tuesday, more than nine years after its creation.
The Mount Washington Community Development Corp. now owns 6 Boggs Ave., once home to the J. Catherine Newton Insurance Agency, and will redevelop the property. The first-floor commercial space will host the Washington Heights Ecumenical Food Bank, along with an apartment above and basement space for community organizations.
Michael Carlin, who leads the community group, told the Union Progress that the food bank intends to let residents “shop” in the building. It currently distributes food through prepacked boxes.
“We’re sort of on a bit of a high,” he said.
Carlin added that he hopes the building will reopen around Thanksgiving. Roughly $10,000 has been raised to refurbish the space, and local tradespeople have offered to donate time and materials.
“It’s got a lot of renovations that need to be done,” he said.
The land bank was launched in 2014 with the vision of acquiring vacant properties and clearing them of tax lien liabilities to get them back on the open market for redevelopment. It has only taken hold of a few properties since its founding, has faced constant turnover in leadership and has yet to reach an agreement with the county, city and city school district on how to remove tax liabilities from properties. The land bank has yet to spend $7 million in federal COVID-19 funding.
The Union Progress contacted the Urban Redevelopment Authority multiple times to speak with Sally Stadelman, who became the land bank’s top official last September.
The handful of properties remaining in the land bank’s inventory is essentially all spoken for. The nonprofit Hazelwood Initiative has proposed building three homes on adjoining Flowers Avenue parcels, with a closing expected soon. Meanwhile, nearly 20 community members objected to the proposed acquisition of a lot on Larimer’s Meadow Street by the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh, a charter school.
Several members of Pittsburgh City Council sit on the land bank’s board, including Bobby Wilson, who represents parts of the North Side. He told the Union Progress that the land bank completing its first transaction marked a big milestone.
“I think it’s a good step in the direction to show an example of how the land bank has the potential to succeed and do far more sales like this one,” he said.
A critical step for the land bank is the process of acquiring land, which has not gone smoothly in Pittsburgh. The land bank can currently add to its inventory by either City Council or the URA board voting to send over property owned by each respective entity. It can also bid at a city treasurer’s sale, although the highest bid wins and the property would retain its existing tax lien liabilities.
Legislation proposed in the General Assembly would give Pittsburgh’s land bank, and the Tri-COG Land Bank that operates in Allegheny County’s eastern suburbs and Monongahela Valley, access to an expedited county sheriff’s sale process already available in Philadelphia. This type of sale would in one action transfer a tax-delinquent property to the land bank and also clear tax liabilities.
State Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Brighton Heights, and state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, the two legislators leading the effort in Harrisburg, both told the Union Progress that they were optimistic about the bill moving forward.
But it’s unclear whether an agreement can be reached between the land bank and City Council on tapping into some of the thousands of vacant city-owned properties. The issue is more political than legal, as the city code already authorizes transfers to the land bank, by way of Council approval.
Negotiations have deadlocked for nearly 12 months on a proposal to amend the so-called “tri-party agreement,” which organizes the relationships between the city, URA and land bank, to establish a more detailed procedure for land transfers. Under the proposal, for which legal language has not been released publicly, the land bank would first send a list of properties it’d like to acquire to the city planning and finance departments for approval. The land bank’s board and City Council would then both have to sign off on moving over the properties.
Council held two private briefings on the proposal, one in December and another in April, with further discussion to be held at a special public meeting scheduled for June 13.
Wilson said it’d be an “incredible opportunity” for the land bank to be able to request city-owned properties, and kickstart the process of putting them back on the market.
“There’s a great opportunity to really get to our goals in a more timely manner,” he said.
Deb Gross, the Highland Park Democrat who originally sponsored the ordinance creating the land bank, told the Union Progress that she wants the transfer process to begin and not end at Council.
“The land bank and the URA are saying they want to select and request properties, and then spend a year or two of administrative time before ever bringing it to the public,” she said. “I feel like that’s out of order because we get the most public input of any other body in the city.”
Wilson isn’t in favor of leaving it to individual councilors to select properties, which he said wouldn’t be an “equitable process.”
“I think we should have less politics to solve our vacant and abandoned property issue,” he said.
Ricky Burgess, who chairs the land bank board and also represents parts of the East End on City Council, did not respond to requests for comment. He said during a public meeting last month that “all of our difficulties” have been with councilors not on the land bank board, who he said “would prefer to micromanage the process.”
“We need to get this done and moving,” Burgess said.
If councilors were able to reach an agreement on how the land bank would receive city-owned properties, it’s unclear whether the land bank can remove the tax lien liabilities that shroud many of them — the most crucial step in getting a property back to productive use.
While the land bank already reached an agreement with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, it has yet to strike a deal with the so-called “three taxing bodies” — the city, Pittsburgh Public Schools and Allegheny County. An agreement would provide a formal process to clear liabilities, and in the interim any of the three could put up a fight if the land bank files paperwork in the county Court of Common Pleas to toss old liabilities, also known as “quieting title.”
Properties are currently handled on a case-by-case basis, according to Wilson, who said that was “not ideal.” He said negotiations are ongoing to reach an agreement with the three taxing bodies.
Wilson said he thinks it’s clear what needs to be done for the land bank to get fully operational, comparing it to cooking a meal.
“The recipe’s there,” he said. “We’ve just got to put these ingredients together and make it.”