One down, two to go.
Pittsburgh’s land bank notched a key win last week after getting City Council approval for a contract between itself, the city and the Urban Redevelopment Authority on how to transfer government-owned property. But it still needs two other tools in order to be fully up and running: a contract among itself, the city, the county and the city school district on how to resolve old tax liabilities; and access to millions in federal COVID-19 relief dollars allocated to it by the city.
The agency is designed to acquire vacant or abandoned properties and clear tax lien liabilities, then get them back on the open market for community-minded redevelopment. It hasn’t gotten much done since first being established in 2014 but recently has begun picking up steam. A new leader took over late last year, and the agency earlier this summer completed its first property sale with several more being finalized.
A spokesperson for the land bank did not respond to a request for comment.
Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a new version of the so-called “tri-party agreement,” a contract organizing the relationships between the land bank, city and URA, to establish a more detailed procedure for land transfers. Under the new agreement, 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.
Amendments to the council resolution authorizing the agreement — primarily aimed at increasing transparency — were introduced by Councilor Deb Gross, D-Highland Park, and that sparked a larger debate among councilors about development in the city.
A controversial amendment preliminarily approved two weeks ago, to require reauthorization of the agreement in two years, was ultimately removed. And another amendment, to require the assent of a councilor if the land bank sought to transfer a property within his or her district to the URA, was changed to only needing to send a notice to the city clerk.
It’s unclear whether the new agreement would take effect immediately upon a series of local officials signing it, or whether it must first be ratified by the boards of the land bank and URA. If further approval is required, it’s likely that votes would be arranged for the land bank board’s Sept. 8 meeting and at a URA meeting the following week.
Once properties are transferred to the land bank, one of the most crucial steps in getting them back to productive use is to remove any tax lien liabilities.
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.”
A city spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the status of any negotiations.
The school district’s lawyer said the district doesn’t have any representation on the land bank board, despite “multiple attempts” to change that. He declined further comment.
A county spokesperson said the land bank has yet to reach out to officials.
The land bank is largely subsisting on grants provided years ago by the city and Heinz Endowments, and has yet to tap into millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds allocated to it by the city.
A spokesperson for the city controller’s office said no money could be transferred until an agreement had been reached between the city and the land bank. The exact amount that will be available to the land bank is unclear — an original $10 million investment was shrunk late last year to $7 million, with a further cut to $3.5 million now proposed by the mayor’s office.
A city spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about when the land bank would be able to spend any of its allocated funding.
The land bank received another item on its wish list earlier this summer: 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.