Midlo East, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from creechdawg’s photostream

Nearly 20 percent of properties in Pittsburgh are vacant or abandoned. To make matters worse, these vacant and abandoned properties are concentrated in a few neighborhoods throughout this city. Such a high concentration of empty homes can be devastating to a neighborhood, bringing down property values, increasing crime, and driving away small business. Fortunately, the General Assembly last year passed legislation allowing the creation of land banks in Pennsylvania. A land bank has the power to purchase vacant, abandoned, and tax delinquent property and put it in the hands of a private developer or city agency that will restore it and turn it into a neighborhood asset.

1. The Pittsburgh Community Land Bank

It is clear that Pittsburgh could benefit from a land bank to purchase blighted properties and create new housing and commercial development opportunities in the neighborhoods that need them most. My vision of a Pittsburgh Community Land Bank is one that is independent, targeted, and sustainable. First of all, our land bank must be independent. The most successful land banks in the country are those that are out of the control of elected or appointed politicians and are created as nonprofit organizations with their own independent board and staff members.

The Pittsburgh Community Land Bank should build on the work of existing organizations such as the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group and the North Side Fair Housing Coalition and should be run from the bottom up, not the top down. An independent land bank protects city taxpayers from liability, has its own sources of funding separate from those of the city and its authorities, and is buffered from political interference.

The Pittsburgh Community Land Bank’s work should be targeted to a few key goals such as reducing blight, providing housing opportunities, and streamlining the judicial process for property acquisition. The most successful land banks in the country are those that focus their work on a few key goals and set realistic targets.

The Pittsburgh Community Land Bank should be sustainable. The partnerships that are created to form the land bank should include organizations that are willing to provide dedicated, predictable streams of funding, especially in the first critical years of the land bank’s operation.