It’s alive!

Pittsburgh’s land bank, designed to acquire vacant or abandoned properties and clear old tax liabilities then get them back on the open market for community-minded redevelopment, has begun picking up steam after years of stagnation since it was established in 2014. A new leader took over late last year, and the agency earlier this summer sold its first property.

Sally Stadelman, the land bank manager, spoke Tuesday with the Union Progress about upcoming projects and progress on securing the intergovernmental contracts crucial to its operations. She said the agency has gotten a lot done this year and has more planned in the pipeline.

“There’s so much opportunity for collaboration between partners to build better systems that serve our residents in the city of Pittsburgh,” Stadelman said.

The land bank notched a key win earlier this month after City Council unanimously voted to authorize a contract among itself, the city and the Urban Redevelopment Authority establishing a standardized process for transferring government-owned property. Council discussion of the contract seemed to reopen wounds from old development efforts, leading to emotional back-and-forths.

Stadelman said the land bank’s working with the city law department to finalize the agreement by the fall and is confident that further approval isn’t needed from the boards of the land bank and URA.

Once the agreement takes effect, the land bank will seek to acquire about a dozen properties from the city and sell them. Most are longtime community gardens in Garfield and the Mexican War Streets to be sent to the Allegheny Land Trust, but also a small side yard for a Garfield resident and two properties in Knoxville for an expansion of the Brashear Association’s campus.

Under the new agreement, the land bank will first request approval from the city planning and finance departments. The land bank’s board and City Council then both have to sign off on moving over the properties.

Stadelman said these properties are ideal for a “test run” of the new agreement, since they don’t have immediate maintenance issues that potentially face vacant structures.

“We’re really excited,” she said. “We certainly hope to bring many more through this year, and it’s just all going to depend on how our timelines play out.”

The land bank could run into issues with selling the properties since it has yet to strike a deal with the so-called “three taxing bodies” — the city, Pittsburgh Public Schools and Allegheny County — on removing any tax liabilities.

An agreement would provide a formal process to clear liabilities, and in the interim any of the three could put up a fight when the land bank files paperwork in the county Court of Common Pleas to toss old liabilities, also known as “clearing” or “quieting” title.

Spokespeople for each of the three governments that would be part of the agreement have previously said either that they seek representation on the land bank board or have yet to hear from land bank officials.

Stadelman said it would be “ideal” to have an agreement already in place, but the land bank nevertheless plans to proceed with clearing title. She said the land bank plans to engage the three governments and “bring them into the fold.”

“There’s precedent that we’re all capable of working together without the three taxing bodies agreement in place,” she said.

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 a formal contract has been reached between the city and the land bank. The amount has also been changing — after an original $10 million investment was shrunk late last year to $7 million, City Council voted earlier this month to further cut the land bank’s allocation in half to $3.5 million. The remainder, city officials said, will go toward repairs on properties owned by the URA that it intends to sell.

Stadelman said the land bank is working with the city law department to finalize an agreement to access the funding, and is also revising its proposed budget, with an update likely at next month’s land bank board meeting.

Stadelman said she anticipates the money will largely be put toward maintaining properties while they are prepared for sale and legal fees associated with clearing title.

The land bank will receive another item on its wish list in September: access to an expedited county sheriff’s sale process already available in Philadelphia. This type of sale would in one action transfer a privately owned tax-delinquent property to the land bank and also clear tax liabilities.

One obstacle to purchasing properties through the sheriff’s sale is the lack of an agreement between the land bank and the three taxing bodies, meaning the land bank currently would have to pay off old tax bills on a property in order to acquire it. An agreement could substantially lower the price.

Stadelman said the land bank is prioritizing the sale of properties already owned by the city and needs to better understand the sheriff’s sale process before using it to acquire properties. It might not begin drawing on it until next year.

“We’ve got to crawl before we walk before we run,” she said.

Stadelman noted the land bank has retained GRB Law and can tap into its experience participating in sheriff’s sales with the Tri-COG Land Bank that operates in the eastern Allegheny County suburbs and Monongahela Valley.

“That expertise is there when we’re ready to use it,” she said.

There are many projects the land bank could take on, but Stadelman said limited staffing means its work is largely limited right now to proposals from outside groups.

“We hope to work to get to a place where we can use data to be proactive, and it’ll be hopefully a little bit of a mix of both,” she said. “The more that we execute, the more that we will be able to really refine.”

Jon, a copy editor and reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and working as a co-editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Reach him at

Jon Moss

Jon, a copy editor and reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and working as a co-editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Reach him at