Ruth Ann Dailey: Land-banking bill has one gap — funding

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Pittsburgh's city council passed its much ballyhooed land bank legislation last Monday, leaving the second-most important issue unresolved -- and nearly unaddressed.

The most important question was who the decision-makers will be. Will the authority's board be stacked with community leaders whose nonprofits gobble up land at low cost, cheating taxpayers and delaying redevelopment?

Or will it be a front for powerful real estate interests to get the properties they want (perhaps after making plump donations to the relevant community group)?

Will communities with virtually no abandoned properties (think Shadyside) decide who gets land to develop in, say, Manchester?

And so on; there's no end to fearful scenarios. But city council seems to have worked out a reasonable approach to balance competing interests as it fills the authority board.

The second most important issue -- remarkably unresolved -- is: Who's going to pay for this? And how?

Because anyone who's been involved in strategic land-banking for any amount of time knows that the lack of an authority was never the problem. It was lack of money.

All of the reporting I've seen on municipal land-banking has missed this point. It really does come down to money.

Whatever the merits of the state's new law allowing municipal land bank authorities such as Pittsburgh has just launched, the old laws for clearing title to abandoned properties remain unchanged.

Our community groups have been doing ad hoc land-banking for decades, and the process takes 18 to 24 months.

Before the city can seize a property for unpaid taxes, it must clear the title by posting notices, giving heirs or other claimants time to come forward, and so on, with each step prescribed by state and local law.

The new authority -- however staffed, at whatever cost -- will have to jump through the same hoops that the city's real estate and law departments currently do.

City staffers formerly launched property seizures as properties became tax delinquent, but at some point in history the deluge of delinquencies overwhelmed staff capacity. Now they clear properties pretty much only as needed -- when we individuals or community groups or developers ask them to.

So when we talk about tackling the city's thousands of abandoned, tax-delinquent properties, we're really talking about clearing title to those properties in a proactive rather than a reactive way. That's something that will require many more bodies working many more hours to accomplish.

Those bodies could have been hired with or without an independent land bank authority. I know, because I saw Johns Hopkins University and Medical Center doing it in Baltimore. In 2009, the Urban Redevelopment Authority sent a delegation of Pittsburghers toiling in the trenches of community revitalization to Baltimore to see how it was being done there.

Baltimore had suffered even bigger ills from the double-whammy of Rust Belt decline and "white flight" than Pittsburgh experienced, with a number of neighborhoods that were almost totally abandoned.

Johns Hopkins targeted one such neighborhood to build a billion dollar, state-of-the-art biotech complex. To speed reclamation and demolition of the properties it needed, the giant nonprofit persuaded the city to let it hire dozens of paralegals to work at City Hall, alongside city employees, launching and managing the required legal paperwork.

Soon, block after block of abandoned East Baltimore was being bulldozed for the new biotech labs.

A New York foundation paid for our visit to witness this Baltimore renaissance, and our contingent included quite a few people who are now proponents of Pittsburgh's land bank authority.

So these people knew, from our Baltimore trip, that foundations don't need a municipal authority to help a city tackle its backlog of abandoned properties. There were other ways to skin this cat.

Now that we've green-lighted the land bank, though, how big a staff will it have? Enough to make a difference?

If foundations fund the first year or two and then move on to the next new thing, will proceeds from city property sales flow to the authority, instead of to city coffers, to fund the operation in perpetuity?

Will the authority hire its own public works crew to cut the weeds and shovel the snowy sidewalks on the properties it "banks," since the city can't handle that now?

There are lots more unanswered questions, but here's one thing I'm not worried about: I know my community-based organization and others will be heard in the new authority structure, because that's its bias.

But I also know that if we want a fair and responsive government, we'll need to "follow the money" for years to come.

Ruth Ann Dailey:

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