PCRG Member Response to Pending City Land Banking Legislation

5 Feb

PCRG is a long-time champion of the transformative role that land banks can play in dealing with our blighted and tax-delinquent properties.  After 5 years of hard work by many, we are excited to see land banking finally come to Pittsburgh, especially as the formation of a neighborhood-serving land bank, by the end of 2014 is a key Board-approved PCRG policy priority.  City Council Bill# 2014-0025, introduced by Councilwoman Deb Gross, is a sweeping piece of legislation that we are happy, on balance, to see.

No legislation is perfect, however, and there are certain aspects of 2014-0025 that we and our members feel must be addressed – particularly relating to governance, representation, land acquisition and disposition, and preservation of occupants’ rights.  Through member education sessions held between January 14 and 28, 2014, we collected the shared concerns, thoughts, and opportunities for further community-minded considerations to enhance the proposed ordinance. PCRG’s Vacant Property Working Group, the well-attended and active forum through which all of our land banking activity has been vetted and which jointly manages the City Land Reserve, also shares these concerns.  Below is a summary, which has been presented to Councilwoman Gross – the bill’s sponsor:

Empowering neighborhoods, acknowledging plans, ensuring engagement

It is important to empower communities through land banking, and this should be reflected through a significant public participation processes within the authorizing legislation, the crafting of the land bank’s policies and procedures, and ongoing input around the acquisition and disposition of land in each respective neighborhood.  Scale of acquisition and disposition should also be addressed as larger projects have much larger impacts on the community. A possible solution could be the creation of a Community Advisory Board, similar to ACCBO or CPRB, to incorporate recommendations of communities and issue experts around specific end-uses, and/or a development review committee.  The legislation’s language concerning community engagement is vague and in need of clarification.

While community plans are addressed in the legislation,  no formal City adoption process currently exists for such plans or standards by which they would be deemed sufficient for adoption. A parallel effort to formalize and standardize the process for the creation, adoption, and alignment of the community plans with public investment priorities should be undertaken. In the interim, standards for how the current universe of existing community plans of various ages, levels of detail and community participation would be treated by the Land Bank should be created. It is important to address what happens in communities where there is no community plan, no community group (or duplicitous groups) or both. This is particularly important in communities which do not have the organizational capacity or resources to have developed and/or implement their own community plans.

Protection of those in Land Bank-acquired properties

Non-displacement should be of the highest priority for the Land Bank, with a further eye towards homeownership preservation. The language in the state and local proposed ordinance address the need for occupant – both tenant and owner-occupant – protections. Understanding that there is already a system in place for hardship payment plans, that same system should be honored and referenced by this legislation to provide enough of a safety net for those who have fallen on hard times.  We suggest referencing or utilizing the City’s Federally-mandated Foley settlement language within the legislation.

Equitable, community-sensitive land disposition

After preventing displacement, the improper or self-serving disposition of land is of utmost concern. This could have serious adverse consequences for our communities – especially our most fragile ones. While it is important for the Land Bank to be flexible and nimble, it must also be thoughtful, measured and careful. Without clearly articulated controls and checks and balances, the opportunity exists for the Land Bank to dispose of land in a manner inconsistent with the goals of the community, and potentially do more harm than good such as selling to the highest bidder or disposing in a manner that is contrary to community wishes either due to a clear community plan/consultation process or other reasons.  Potential mitigation activities could be a letter of support from community groups prior to disposition approval and/or a public comment or appeals process on the front or back end of a disposition due diligence period or decision.

Additionally, the currently existing Property Reserve has been a valuable tool for land assembly in many of our neighborhoods. CDCs have historically utilized the existing Land Reserve system to leverage their own preferred access with private developers on projects that are important to the communities they serve.  As the legislation is written, the Land Bank is unable to continue this historic, vital component of Pittsburgh’s revitalization as it is currently written.  While it is acknowledged that the overall process itself will – and, indeed, must – change, it is important to include the intent to preserve a system whereby CDCs can continue to tag and assemble land to engage in revitalization and redevelopment projects in line with neighborhood-identified priorities.

Post-disposition accountability

Many of our communities are plagued with unfinished projects or properties bought by speculators who never complete projects or invest in the properties that they have purchased through the City’s existing process. If the volume of land which will be made available to the private market increases, there must be simultaneous increases in enforcement, ensuring that end-uses are implemented and land is improved upon, not further speculated on.

Board of Directors

The legislation does not fully address how this Board will be seated, nor is it sensitive to those communities with the largest amounts of blighted, vacant, and/or delinquent properties. It is important to flush out the process for Council and Mayoral appointments, and community seats, possibly setting criteria such as: Council members with districts with the most land eligible for tax collection or foreclosure processes under a land bank have a greater number of appointments to the board, or community members from area with the most amount of vacant land/houses, etc.

If the legislation is going to name an interim board in the meantime, this board should fairly and accurately represent the communities most directly affected by blight and abandonment. As they will be the ones writing the initial by-laws, articles of incorporation and possibly even beginning crafting the Policies and Procedures and information gathering for the strategic plan, they are equally important individuals and the transparency in their selection is important. They should be representative of the diversity of our communities, include community representation, and have expertise in the basic functions of a land bank. One suggestion is to follow a similar selection methodology as that used for the Citizens’ Police Review Board, wherein neighborhoods most affected by incidents are given priority over others.  Additionally, to allow for changing priorities, where the land bank is spending the bulk of its activity should be assessed regularly to whether or not areas that have received priority in board selection in the past still deserve this priority.  This helps ensure that, as neighborhoods stabilize and activities move to other areas, leadership accurately represents that shift.

Finally, Pennsylvania law governing the appointment and removal of authority Board members should be reviewed as it pertains to the Land Bank.  There is concern about the ease with which board members can be removed under the City legislation and whether or not such provisions are legal under current authority law.

Policies and Procedures

The proposed legislation provides for public hearings prior to the adoption of the strategic plan, but designated the board of directors as the entity with sole responsibility to craft the operational policies and procedures. As this is the day-to-day functionality of the land bank, the framework for additional levels and methods of community engagement into the crafting of these policies and procedures should be built in to the legislation, with a public participation process enumerated. Communities who would be the most directly impacted by land bank activities – i.e., those with the most blighted and abandoned property – should have representation commiserate with the land bank’s impact on their respective communities. This will to ensure that substantial, substantive ongoing community input is built in to the administration of the Land Bank.

Ernie Hogan

Executive Director at Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group
Prior to joining PCRG’s staff, Ernie served on PCRG’s Board of Directors for almost 20 years. He is the Chair of Pittsburgh’s Historic Review Commission; he sits on the board of Community Human Services, Highland Park CDC, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition - of which he is the Chair of the Mortgage Finance Committee; and he is an Executive Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Economic Development. He holds a BA in Business Administration and Economic Finance Management from SUNY Buffalo. He is a Certified Housing Counselor, a Licensed Real Estate Agent, and a resident of Highland Park.