Say yes to a land bank

Pittsburgh would benefit greatly from a well-designed land bank, argues Liz Hersh of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania

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It is time for Pittsburgh to create a local land bank.

Started with fanfare but lost in the downward spiral of the last administration, Pittsburgh’s Land Recycling Task Force (​landrecycling/) thoroughly documented the need, potential and positive economics of land banking. As with the current proposed ordinance, however, its recommendations were quietly held. Pittsburgh’s land bank effort, past and present, has suffered from a lack of public information and constructive debate. That is a missed opportunity.

Land banking is worth pursuing. It is a game changer.

Like most cities in Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh’s progress is impeded by blight and byabandonment. It lacks a modern, efficient system for recycling unused property at scale and getting it back onto the market and productive reuse. The goal of a land bank is to take cancerous blight and create a system to get abandoned properties clear title, publicly inventoried and marketed for reuse by neighbors, community groups, developers or Realtors.

Many of Pittsburgh’s unused properties would become new affordable homes, stores or other businesses; green infrastructure for storm water management; urban gardens or pocket parks; undeveloped hillsides no longer considered suitable for building or side-yards that would increase the value of existing homes.

The ultimate use of these properties and who gets to decide is, of course, the heart of the matter and why land banks are worth fighting about. On the one hand, they bring the power to raise fallow land to new use. On the other, there is the potential for abuse that frightens community advocates whose history with urban renewal has understandably bred mistrust.

Pittsburgh has the opportunity to learn from the experience of land banks in Ohio, Michigan and New York and to adopt national best practices.

A land bank should maximize and institutionalize transparency and accountability to the community, with strong community representation on its board, an open planning process to determine policies and set priorities, strict adherence to sunshine and ethics laws, and public input into property disposition policies within the context of an overall redevelopment plan.

Every effort should be made to support local neighborhood aspirations and organizations. People who have stayed in and sustained neighborhoods in times of decline should see some direct benefits. And a big picture of land use in whole neighborhoods and the entire city should be adopted to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Good land banking is aligned with fair and uniform property tax collection that identifies in advance the properties of homeowners facing hardships and offers them support. Second- and third-generations and surviving spouses in family homes may need help to gain clear title and make necessary upgrades to market properties and/​or to allow their continued residence. Even working homeowners often cannot afford basic legal services. Support should be coupled with accountability.

A land bank can be an important tool that benefits all residents by raising property values, increasing green space and making land more available to those who have a stake in its reuse. But it is only a tool. Like any other, it is only as effective as those who wield it.

Liz Hersh is executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, an advocacy organization that works to make sure every Pennsylvanian has a home, especially those with low incomes (,).

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