Pittsburgh Land Bank will use $3.5 million in COVID-19 stimulus funds to acquire and sell 148 properties over the next three years, according to a high-level budget approved Friday.
“That will fluctuate as we really flesh out these projects, but we’re just so thrilled and excited to be funded,” said Sally Stadelman, the land bank’s top official, at its Friday afternoon board meeting. Specific properties targeted for acquisition were not mentioned.
The cash infusion, down from an original $10 million, will help kick-start operations at the land bank, which is designed to acquire vacant or abandoned properties and clear old tax liabilities then get them back on the open market for community-minded redevelopment. It has begun picking up steam in the past few months after years of stagnation since it was established in 2014.
The land bank requires the cooperation of, and written agreements with, multiple levels of government in order to actually take in properties and then clear any old taxes to make them attractive for new owners.
It notched a key win last month after City Council unanimously voted to authorize a contract among itself, the city and the Urban Redevelopment Authority to establish a standardized process for transferring government-owned property to the land bank. The city and URA together own about 15,000 properties, although many face administrative holds that prevent them from readily being sold.
Stadelman said the land bank is working to prepare the contract to be signed.
“We do hope to see that finalized in the coming weeks,” she said.
The land bank could run into issues with selling any properties it acquires since no deal has been reached with the so-called “three taxing bodies” — the city, Pittsburgh Public Schools and Allegheny County — on removing any old 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.
There was no update Friday about reaching an agreement, although Stadelman told the Union Progress last month that the land bank plans to engage the three governments and “bring them into the fold.”
The land bank ran out of land after selling five properties this summer across three sales, but board members on Friday approved the acquisition of its sixth property.
The land bank will take in a vacant property at 2299 Centre Ave., about 1,000 square feet in size in the heart of the Hill District, that’s adjacent to the MOKA Art Gallery run by Errol “Mobutu” Reynolds and Charlotte Ka. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the land bank would also acquire two adjacent city-owned vacant parcels that are about the same size and package them together.
County records show the property was purchased for $5,000 through a tax sale last year by the Pittsburgh Housing Development Corp., a URA subsidiary, and Reynolds had also bid for the property at the sale. It has two liens from unpaid county taxes in 2021 and 2022, which the land bank will now seek to clear.
The exact end use for the property isn’t clear, as well as whether it would go through a competitive or noncompetitive sale process, but Reynolds and Ka both spoke during a public comment period at the meeting and said they were interested in purchasing the property.
Reynolds noted the Hill was home to Pittsburgh’s original cultural district, before performance venues were built in Downtown, and the duo seeks to bring cultural institutions back to the neighborhood.
“We’re not trying to do this for ourselves; we’re not trying to make a profit or anything,” he said.
City Councilor Ricky Burgess, who chairs the land bank board, told Reynolds and Ka that they were “in the right place.”
“[Stadelman] will personally help you figure this out,” he said.