Brian O'Neill: Blight-ridding bill in Pittsburgh shows plenty of potential

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Drive down Hamilton Avenue or its side streets in Homewood and you'll see a whole lot of not there anymore.

City Council is trying to hash out a plan to "land bank'' the acres of vacant and boarded-up properties the city controls so they can be cleared for sale. That would take in about half of Homewood and almost half the Hill District.

When I asked Councilman Ricky Burgess, who represents Homewood, if he could give me a quick tour of the problem sites, he said, "You don't need me. I'm dead serious. Drive down Hamilton Avenue and drive around at your leisure. It's so bad ... it's breathtaking.''

He was right. It came as advertised.

Rev. Burgess, who tried unsuccessfully to pass land bank legislation a year ago, is a critic of the current proposal by freshman Councilwoman Deb Gross of Highland Park. Councilman Dan Lavelle of the Hill District also has raised concerns. Both fear that the bill does little to ensure input from the affected communities.

Rev. Burgess put it this way: If he were to take half of the South Side Flats, Squirrel Hill and Shadyside and turn their collective future over to the people of Homewood and the Hill District, those in the prosperous communities would howl.

More likely they'd hire a vanful of lawyers. Either way, the devil will be in the details of this program that could cover more than 35,000 blighted properties -- almost a fifth of the city.

The past quarter-century has been a tale of two cities for Pittsburgh. The value of the median city home has risen faster than the Allegheny County median, and prices in some neighborhoods have quadrupled. But more than a few city locations are stuck in neutral or worse. In Homewood, the median price of homes has sunk.

That uneven terrain is precisely why council members are drawn to this 2012 state legislation that permits land banks to clear titles of tax liens and bank foreclosures. As Rev. Burgess has put it, the biggest slumlord in the city of Pittsburgh is the city of Pittsburgh. And that's been true for decades.

Moira Egler, Ms. Gross's community development liaison, said this legislation would provide only a legal framework. A seven-person board -- four appointed by the mayor and three by council -- would create the policies and procedures for a land bank.

"There will be a ton of public process in the board's actions,'' Ms. Egler said, "lots of opportunity for public input and council input.''

The land bank would sweep up tax-delinquent properties with the city-owned portfolio and clear pieces for sale to get them back on the tax rolls. The land bank won't sell to "notorious slumlords,'' she said, and all sales will be transparent.

When I asked about the potential for sweetheart deals to Grant Street insiders, she said each buyer and sale price would be public knowledge.

It sounds promising. The board's makeup would be key, but council and Mayor Bill Peduto, who had his election victory party in Homewood, could ease concerns with appointments from Mr. Lavelle's and Rev. Burgess's districts.

Maybe the legislation could even be amended to require the board to include at least one representative from each of the two or three council districts with the most land in the bank. Nobody should know those neighborhoods better than residents.

As one who has watched his own slice of the North Side revive and thrive these past 25 years, I think Rev. Burgess is wise to suggest his district's revival will begin from its prosperous edges. A housing revival won't begin in "the heart of Homewood,'' he said, but from the transitional neighborhoods surrounding it.

That's happened before in Pittsburgh, but on plenty of residential streets that seems to be just an urban legend. As I drove down Hamilton Avenue late Friday morning, I saw one lone schoolgirl waiting at a bus stop in the 6-degree chill.

The two-hour school delay hadn't done much to nudge up the temperature, and she looked awfully lonely as she hopped around trying to stay warm. That child could use more neighbors.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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