Questions raised about land bank plan in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA), 2014-02-17
Feb. 17--A proposal to sell vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent Pittsburgh properties has some community members wondering whether a new layer of bureaucracy will help remedy urban blight.
According to city estimates, Pittsburgh has about 26,000 vacant or tax-delinquent properties, either privately or publicly owned. A proposed land bank, using a revolving fund, could purchase them with an expedited bidding and title process to get them in the hands of new owners or developers. Some worry the land bank board's appointed members wouldn't represent neighborhoods most affected by blight; others are concerned about favoritism.
"People have to live with those things that are being decided, so they have some way to give input into the process," said Bonnie Young Laing, co-director of the Hill District Consensus Group. She supports the proposal but hopes to see more community organizations on its board.
The proposal for the seven-member board includes City Council and mayoral appointees, two of which would represent nonprofit or advocacy organizations for housing or community development.
Aaron Chaney, a developer with Murrysville-based Penn Pioneer Enterprises who rehabilitates distressed properties for sale or rent, said he's concerned the land bank's powers to trump bids could result in boxing out private developers and giving unfair advantages to the well-connected. He suggests clear criteria for selling properties and a sunset date if the land bank proves ineffective.
"Make sure there's clear criteria for disposing of properties in the land bank," he said. "As long as there's criteria to follow, there's no question about favoritism."
Chaney said he'd like for the city to change its tax-delinquent-property sale system before starting a new entity.
"You're putting in this extra layer of bureaucracy," he said. "It still has to go through the same legal work."
Councilwoman Deb Gross, lead sponsor of the legislation, said she and others are willing to consider changes to the board's representation. The goal of the land bank is to "empower the community over outside interests," she said, in all neighborhoods.
The current system, Gross said, is time-consuming for the buyer and the city. The city sells about 80 percent of its properties in neighborhoods with large community development corporations: Oakland, East Liberty, Bloomfield, Lawrenceville and central North Side.
"You should not have to be paid a full-time salary," Gross said, referring to development officials. She said sales often take two years.
Council will have a public hearing on the land bank at 6 p.m. on Thursday in council chambers.
Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess supports the concept of a land bankbut warned constituents not to let the proposal go through, calling it a "land grab" by the city in a Jan. 30 letter. He'd like to see the final product require council members to sign off on land bank sales, similar to the system for current city-owned property transfers.
"I want a process where the residents have approval over land distribution," he said. "Council oversight is extremely important, because the community must have a person they can hold accountable."
Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or email@example.com.
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