7 years later, city burdened with thousands of abandoned properties
With crucial support from community leaders, the Pittsburgh land bank was launched seven years ago as a powerful urban tool to put hundreds of boarded-up homes back on the tax rolls, clear out empty buildings and transform the most distressed city neighborhoods.
Citing the success of similar programs in other cities, the agency was emboldened under a new state law to take ownership of abandoned homes in areas that have been losing residents for generations.
Since its creation, the agency has spent hundreds of thousands on consultants, lawyers and experts to draw up plans to make it one of the most successful programs of its kind in Pennsylvania.
“This Land Bank will become an important and powerful tool in our efforts to empower residents to take back control of their neighborhoods,” said Mayor Bill Peduto, who championed the legislation in 2014.
But after all the meetings and spending, this is what taxpayers got for their money: a single, empty lot in an area long vexed by blight and crime.
Ultimately, the program created to help turn around the burgeoning problem of urban blight failed at every level, from the lack of money to buy the properties, to the inability of the land bank to strike agreements with other public agencies, to a critical lack of leadership, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation found.
“A huge missed opportunity,” said Joanna Deming, executive director of Perry Hilltop Citizens Council. “Why has the land bank taken so long to get going?”
Even its website — a basic tool for land banks to sell properties — was down part of last year, leaving advocates at a further loss to determine what went wrong with an agency that once garnered strong support from City Council.
After operating independently since 2014, the agency was moved into the Urban Redevelopment Authority last month as an affiliate of the URA in an action that raises questions over whether the program will survive.
The scrutiny comes amid a growing crisis for Pittsburgh: Ownership of roughly 11,500 properties scattered across the landscape, many dangerous and decrepit eyesores that have devalued neighborhoods for decades.
An analysis by the Post-Gazette shows that about half the structures have been slapped with code violations by the city’s own inspectors, including homes with rotting porches and collapsed roofs, and empty, deteriorating storefronts.
At least four dozen were so bad they were declared unfit for human habitation.
Beyond the violations, nearly half the properties are laden with court liens — encumbrances from unpaid taxes and utility bills — making it even more difficult to put them on the open market, the Post-Gazette found.
And those are just the city-owned properties. Thousands of vacant lots burdened with liens and owned by others are scattered through nearly every neighborhood.
Betty Lane, 83, who lives around the corner from the empty lot the land bank owns, said she was surprised to learn it had only acquired one parcel in seven years.
“Unreal,” said Ms. Lane, who has worked on vacant land issues for three decades. “Someone needs to explain that to the community… There’s over 700 vacant lots [in Larimer]. We need development.”
During a recent interview, she pointed to a broken-down row home owned by the city with crumbled bricks and a condemned sign plastered across the front.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “There are thousands of dollars worth of water bills on this. If they would drop the liens and let somebody fix it, they could get some money.”
From the Sheraden neighborhood, to the Hill District, to the far corner of Homewood, tax delinquent homes have fallen into disrepair. Vines and weeds engulf entire front porches; shattered windows mark homes that have been deserted for years — many clustered in the city’s majority Black neighborhoods where homeowners bear the brunt of crime and sinking property values.
Land bank experts across the country and local leaders on the ground say the delay in getting properties back on the tax rolls more than likely has taken an even greater toll on abandoned homes.
Many are “too far gone,” said Aaron Sukenik, executive director of the Hilltop Alliance, which represents some of the most blighted streets in the city’s southern hills. “Water starts to get in. Roofs start to give, gutters and downspouts start to give.”
When Pittsburgh launched the land bank two years after Pennsylvania lawmakers passed enabling legislation in 2012, the programs had already been operating in other cities, in some cases helping to revive some of the most devastated neighborhoods across the Rust Belt.
The land bank shares some of the same functions as the Urban Redevelopment Authority — Pittsburgh’s agency that fights blight — but with a crucial difference: It has the power to clear titles of properties and strip away liens and delinquent taxes. That means getting homes and vacant lots back on the tax rolls in a quicker, more efficient way.
In Flint, Mich., Detroit, Toledo and Cleveland, the agencies acquired old homes — many of them tax delinquent — for small amounts of money and put them on the market.
Philadelphia prioritized affordable housing and green space, turning barren lots into parks. And in Detroit, the focus is getting developers to invest in old homes to turn them into affordable units.
Detroit is selling 300 individual homes and parcels a month, more than double its pace from three years ago.
“It really goes back to what’s the political mandate. How do parties agree on how to utilize the land bank?” said Saskia Thompson, executive director of the Detroit Land Bank.
Starting in 2010, Pittsburgh began to rapidly acquire abandoned properties — hundreds every year — as people had left for the suburbs and the city looked to protect what was left.
The land bank was to be one of the weapons to take on the properties, work out agreements to remove the liens and get the parcels to potential buyers.
But a critical series of missteps would keep the agency from executing its plan and following the city’s path.
Though the land bank board included elected and nonprofit leaders, including City Councilman Ricky Burgess as chairman, it didn’t hire a permanent executive director, an important step in leadership that it needed, say land bank experts.
The agency declared that 2018 was going to be its breakout year, with the goal of starting to build a portfolio of 50 properties, half of them lots and the other half homes and buildings.
It even reaped the benefit of a $400,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments, but in the end, it never carried through on its pledge, acquiring just the one lot in Larimer, which still shows $525 in tax liens.
Mr. Burgess, who initially opposed the land bank, did not respond to repeated interview requests about why the program didn’t meet its targets.
Paul Leger, a former city finance director and a board member at the time, said not having an active director to take the lead in acquiring homes was a crucial stumbling block.
That same year, the land bank spent $26,000 in legal services and $47,799 for the Urban Redevelopment Agency to help with administrative functions, including a desk and computer for someone to work. And $10,156 went to travel and training, though records do now show who took trips and who was trained.
The Post-Gazette has asked for receipts to detail the spending, but the agency had yet to turn over the records as of Friday.
There was also another misstep: The land bank wasn’t striking agreements with other local taxing bodies, such as the county and school district, that are needed to remove liens for unpaid taxes.
“We have to partner or we wouldn’t get anything done,” said Ms. Thompson of the Detroit Land Bank.
Meanwhile, just outside the city’s borders, a second land bank that had been running since 2017, the Tri-COG — named for its three councils of government — had not only raised more money than Pittsburgh, but was fulfilling its core mission in the hard-hit Mon Valley.
The agency reached pacts with 22 municipalities and six school districts that would provide a steady stream of funding.
In the first five years, the agency took ownership of 39 houses, one building and seven vacant lots. This year alone, it has sold one of the lots, struck deals to sell five houses, and has a dozen properties listed for sale.
“The true power of a land bank is acquisition, title clearing and site control because once you own the land, you can control what happens there,” said An Lewis, the land bank’s executive director.
While Pittsburgh continued to acquire tax delinquent properties in 2019, the land bank was positioned again to get them back on the market. It spent at least $186,819 — mostly to the URA for housing the agency — with nothing to show.
Mr. Leger became the executive director in 2020, but again, no new action was taken to buy homes. After just six months on the job, Mr. Leger, who did not take a salary, stepped down, saying the agency should either dissolve itself, get acquired by the URA or merge with another land bank.
“There was no one really in charge,” he said. “When they stuck me in there, it was just me. I had no connection to anyone else…there is no committed money.”
The Post-Gazette has requested the land bank’s spending records from 2020, but URA officials say they won’t be ready until a new staff is in place.
In mid-March the land bank’s board announced that it had tapped fellow board member and URA deputy executive director Diamonte Walker to lead the agency along with a newly hired manager.
Asked why the agency had been unable to keep pace with its nearby counterpart, the Tri-COG land bank, Ms. Walker said, “It’s hard to compare one land bank to another.”
Up until now, the agency had been “gathering input from the community,” she said. “I think we could’ve had a land bank that was operational five years ago. It might not have been the most equitable, transparent approach. So we’ve taken our time to figure out how to do this well and how to do this right.”
But other land banks, including Tri-COG, faced many of the same hurdles and managed to take control of troubled properties and raise money more quickly, records and interviews show.
For now, questions abound among neighborhood activists over whether the URA is going to make any difference.
Ms. Walker served on the land bank board for the past four years while the agency took ownership of the lone property in Larimer and spent at least $343,000.
Ms. Walker said when the land bank acquired the vacant lot, it was really “experimenting” to show “what the land bank would be able to do.”
But experts and neighborhood activists say there were already sound procedures in place for the land bank to follow.
“I don’t understand that,” said Ms. Lane, who lives in Larimer. “They only have one property. You can’t move on one property? If people are working on the land bank, what are they doing?”
For Ms. Lane, Pittsburgh’s future depends on what the city will do to transform neighborhoods like hers.
To city Controller Michael Lamb, the financial toll has been the deepest felt consequence, since the abundance of abandoned homes are not generating property taxes.
“We have 10,000-12,000 vacant properties — even if those are worth $10,000, that’s a significant revenue loss,” said Mr. Lamb, who sounded the alarm in an audit three years ago that the land bank wasn’t fulfilling its mission.
The old homes are not just drains on the neighborhoods. They also attract crime.
Last year, a woman’s body was found in a vacant row house across the street from a strip of empty lots in Homewood.
In Sheraden, a 35-year-old man was found dead in a vehicle earlier this month after he was shot multiple times in an area pocked by vacant lots and homes.
Ginny Hamer-Kropf said she was startled out of bed when she heard the shots.
“The next thing you know, there’s cops in front of my house, they’re blocking off my street. It’s like, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ It’s hard,” said Ms. Hamer-Kropf, president of Sheraden Community Council.
“Sometimes I feel like I just want to walk away, but I worked hard, I paid off my house, I got my kids through college, why should I have to start over again?”
Though the land bank created a strategic plan several years ago to target the worst-hit areas and make “significant strides” in reducing the blighted properties, it didn’t.
For the land bank to work, it needs to move on that same plan, say advocates. That means, identifying the neighborhoods most in need and the key properties to be acquired, say experts.
All ideas are “on the table” moving forward, said Ms. Walker. “We’re going to need grace and we’re going to need understanding while we try to figure some of these things out.”