Pittsburgh City Council endorses amended land bank measure

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Three weeks ago, when residents packed the pews at a Hill District church calling on city council members to “kill the bill,” compromise on a proposal to create a land bank, an independent entity that would handle Pittsburgh’s vacant land, didn’t seem possible.

Proponents of the bill, introduced by Councilwoman Deb Gross in early January, called it an effective tool to deal with the city’s thousands of parcels of blighted and vacant land, a mechanism that’s been praised elsewhere for turning around communities. Opponents called it “carpetbagging” and predatory and warned residents that it would force them out of their homes to make way for gentrification.

But on Wednesday, after weeks of emotional forums and dozens of meetings with community groups, council hashed out a bill that was endorsed by a near-consensus of its members in a compromise that seemed far from likely weeks ago. The new bill includes provisions for council approval for at least two years, broadens community input and expands the governing board.

In a council meeting that lasted around four hours, seven members — Ms. Gross, Natalia Rudiak, Bruce Kraus, Dan Gilman, R. Daniel Lavelle, Corey O’Connor and Ricky Burgess — voted in favor of the refashioned version of the bill. Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith abstained, and Councilwoman Darlene Harris voted no. A final vote will take place Monday.

The bill has, for some time, had enough votes to pass. But it lacked support from Mr. Lavelle and Mr. Burgess, whose council districts have the most vacant parcels, land that would become prime candidates for a land bank. They represented some of the strongest voices in opposition to the proposal, as did community leaders within their districts.

Over the last two weeks, the office of Mayor Bill Peduto, a strong proponent of land-banking, held meetings with community groups as a new version of the bill was crafted. And as late as 8 p.m. Tuesday, council members and Mr. Peduto’s policy director, Matt Barron, remained at city hall as they negotiated amendments that would make the bill digestible to members who had sharply opposed it.

The bill still failed to gain support from Ms. Harris, who believes that the city’s real estate department, which currently handles sales of city land, would be up for the task if it had more funding.

The legislation amended Wednesday represents a significant compromise for all sides. It will allow city council oversight over land sales for the next two years, when council will take a vote as to whether it wants to hold on to that authority. Mr. Lavelle, who wrote the amendment, said he would not have voted for a bill that would take away council’s authority over land sales.

And even Wednesday, Mr. Lavelle was lukewarm about the new proposal.

“Right now we’re passing a bill with wonderful intent,” he said. “What our job will be is to now actually create something that moves past intent and now in to process. In the past, that’s where I’ve seen government suffer.”

Another of Mr. Lavelle’s amendments expands the governing board from seven members to nine: three appointed by the mayor, three by the three council members whose districts have the most vacant land and three community members who will be elected by the first six board members.

Mr. O’Connor also introduced an amendment that responded to concerns frequently voiced by community members who were frightened they could be kicked out of their homes or that land could be taken from their community without their consultation. His amendment creates greater opportunities for community participation, including a provision that will allow residents near a property to object to a sale. It better defines “the community participation and how the community members can fight for properties in their neighborhoods,” he said.

The amendment also included additional language that would discourage the land bank from evicting homeowners who fall behind on their taxes. The land bank would first be required to set up payment plans, for example, and would require direct outreach to tax-delinquent homeowners at risk of losing their property.

Ms. Gross, who took on the controversial land-banking proposal in her second month in office, said the often acrimonious process was a reminder that even disparate factions of the community can work together.

“One of the biggest things is that we remembered to talk to each other … and we this is I hope is one of the fruits of this efforts that we can bring to bear as we see other challenges in the city,” she said. “It’s true that we’ve all had to compromise … it’s true that it’s not perfect, but it is better than what we had.”

Mr. Peduto opposed council approval for the land sales process because he believes politicians should be taken out of the process.

But he nonetheless offered his praise to the land-banking bill.

“This Land Bank will become an important and powerful tool in our efforts to empower residents to take back control of their neighborhoods from slumlords and speculators, to foster homeownership and wealth-building in our struggling communities, and to bring new investment into areas of the city that have been left behind,” he said in an email statement.

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published April 9, 2014 11:48 AM

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