A Land Banking Advisory Council? And other Monday.

Try this Public Land Bank governance concept on for size, special from the Comet:

Three (3) Mayoral appointees, three (3) by City Council, and three (3) by the new Opportunity-Laden Neighborhood Community Advisory Council (OLNCAC).

Participating community organizations and residents will submit to the City bylaws for the OLNCAC, and the City shall approve the agreement with the association by ordnance and may revoke it only by ordinance. The OLNCAC’s bylaws must include adequate measures to ensure a diversity of representation, participation and inclusion among land banking “affected” neighborhoods (by the terms of Burgess/Lavelle). The OLNCAC may participate in other activities.

If that is too radically community engaging, then how about five appointees by the Mayor, four by City Council, and several restrictions on the choices to ensure adequate “affected” neighborhood interest representation by either side, while an Advisory Council still makes its advice known.

SPEAKING OF TRUST: Jordan Miles will re-plead his case before an all-white jury.

SPEAKING OF ISSUES: The P-G’s Gary Rotstein thinks Peduto-Romoff may have been more perfunctory even than cordial; yet the Trib’s Eric Heyl thinks it a win for the cause of UPMC workers.

31 thoughts on “A Land Banking Advisory Council? And other Monday.

  1. Brian Tucker-Hill

    I think the fully separate advisory council approach makes more sense for a couple reasons. First, I think it does more to take the Land Bank back to what I believe it should have been all along, namely that as much as possible it should just be an administrative body, not a policy-making body.

    Second, I think a fully separate advisory council could serve not only to provide advice, but also to act as a sort of watchdog group, ala A+ Schools. In fact I would formalize that role, with things like auditing powers and regular reporting. But to properly fill a watchdog role, that entity can’t also be picking Board representatives, since that will create a conflict of interest.

    1. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      BrianTH if the world were smooth and not mountainous, powers equal and not unequal, it would be efficient to think of a public Land Bank as an administrative body. Alas, since we have qualitative civic goals, it must also be a policy-parsing one.

      Yet another reason this authority needs to held by a representative public body, and not rendered meaningless anywhere else. Least of all by individuals. After all, when evaluating the needs of a neighborhood, the world’s best Council member can only be of one gender, be of one class, of one ethnic make-up, of one sexual orientation, of one spirituality, of one background and of one politics. Empower and hold accountable rather a diverse public body to be as fully reflective as practical, as well as strategically representative of the Pittsburgh neighborhoods most at-risk in land banking.

      That way, no matter who bears a prejudice against any given applicant or entity with business before the land bank, the subject matter can still be discussed among a larger group, and with significantly greater transparency.

      1. Brian Tucker-Hill

        “Alas, as we have qualitative civic goals, it must be a policy-making one.”

        You’ll have to flesh out for me why you think that is the case specifically for the Land Bank.

        Of course we already have plenty of bodies making land-use policy for the City. When a private land owner wants to sell his or her property, the relevant policies will be operative with respect to any prospective buyers, but the seller is not the one making those policies.

        There is no inherent reason why the Land Bank could not function as a neutral seller in the same way as a private land owner, and indeed it could be explicitly mandated to do so. Asking it instead to become a brand new policy-making body is therefore a choice, and it is a choice people should be thinking very carefully about before making.

        Indeed, that is a rhetorical trick certain politicians have pulled with respect to this issue–they have snuck in the implicit assumption that the Land Bank should be picking buyers based on some sort of vision for the surrounding communities, and then they ask, “Who should have control over such power?” But the first question we should be asking is, “Why should ANYONE have such power?”

      2. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

        Tucker-Hill – give me a while to mull my rationale for desiring that the Land Bank have discretion to interpret policy. Right now I’m stuck on the one word: “Demand”. When folks say they desire to put land to the “highest and best use”, I think “best” implies a need for real interpretation.

      3. Brian Tucker-Hill

        As you mull, just keep in mind that while the idea of government officials picking winners and losers in the name of achieving “the highest and best use” for urban land may sound good in theory, in practice trying to implement such a process often ends up slow and ineffective at best, and corrupt at worst. And also keep in mind this doesn’t mean land development would be a Wild West free-for-all–things like zoning, city planning, the HRC, and so on would still apply. The difference is really about whether government officials should get to pick WHO among potential investors even gets a chance to operate within those rules, and again that is not a power we should be granting them lightly.

  2. Brian Tucker-Hill

    By the way, I think there could be a more elegant name for the advisory/watchdog group. “A+ Schools” is again a good example, and I am thinking something like “Smart Growth Council,” “Equitable Development Council,” or so on–a more creative person could likely do better, but the idea would be a name that references a common, positive phrase in this policy area.

    That said, I like the translation of “affected” into “opportunity laden” when it comes to talking about neighborhoods with a lot of relevant properties.

  3. Shawn Carter

    You can put as much lipstick on the pig as you like, it’s still a pig.

    The only logical justification for removing elected legislators from this process is to fast-track handing these properties to entities as yet unknown.

    The reason the funding sources/amounts have not been disclosed is because the source(s) of funds share a direct correlation with who will exert the ultimate control of this Land Bank.

    I am curious as to how Bram knows more about the proposed amendments from the sponsor(s)/proponents(s) than the public.

    The government, elected by the people, should set the policy, because only its elected officials can be truly held accountable for outcomes.

    I reject the argument that removing Council will lead to efficiency. In part, because Council never got to choose to underfund the Real Estate Department, that was the mistake of Mayors past. Efficiency is not always a good thing. I could point out countless examples of extremely efficient processes that were awful for the people those processes were inflicted upon.

    As they are, the amendments, at best, present a merely cosmetic set of alleged fixes to a fatally flawed bill, and will do absolutely nothing to deal with those substantive flaws.

    This is far from “bottom-up”.

    1. MH

      First, you can, if you put the lipstick on correctly, make a more attractive pig than before. It isn’t that common, but people do all sorts of strange stuff at livestock shows. If you can put silicone in a cow’s teats, I don’t see why lipsticking a pig is out of the question.

      Second, it isn’t at all uncommon or undemocratic for elected legislators to be removed from processes after setting legal guidelines that elected executives follow to administer the policy.

    2. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      What do I know more about than who, Shawn? I know nothing.

      I’m a little more at liberty to be frank than Council members about the implications of Council’s longstanding informal rule to defer decisions to the single Council member in whose district that business happens, and that rule’s unhappy legacy of inhibiting public debate, stockpiling land the public cannot afford to maintain, and government-propelled gentrification.

      That feudal, nontransparent, non deliberative, “trust-me” approach of the old Councils is the pig. Rev’s approach has been to embrace it, put garish lipstick on it, and make uglier pigs out of straw to make that one pig appear even a little bit tempting.

    3. Brian Tucker-Hill

      “The only logical justification for removing elected legislators from this process is to fast-track handing these properties to entities as yet unknown.”

      There are actually many reasons why legislatures allocate powers to independent agencies.

      But in this case, I am personally willing to say you are on the right track. Just fill in something like “the highest bidders” for “entities as yet unknown,” and I think you have a start on a pretty good policy argument.

  4. Anonymous

    So Bram my approach to land use has nothing to do with animals. I advocate for mixed income communities. I do not believe traditional african american communities should be gentrified so that current residents can’t live there. New developments in those communities should include at least 30% affordable housing. If left up to the market the landbank will drop a segregated southside works development on Homewood West. I am my community’s last and most of the time only line of defense. If those who want to steal our land instead gave Homewood 10 years of significant investment our community could be rebuilt.

      1. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

        I just noticed these comments. As I tweeted earlier today to Shawn, I have respect for the idea that a certain percentage of new developments in poor & highly abandoned communities ought to be sought as affordable. One of the better ideas in your amendments IMHO and an innovative one. I’m not certain however as to the land bank’s mechanism for enforcing this, or if we are talking 30% in each specific neighborhood or 30% in the aggregate… details.

        Thanks for chiming in here again, Councilman!

    1. Brian Tucker-Hill

      It is well worth asking what policies and practices would lead to the highest NUMBER of affordable units in disinvested neighborhoods that nonetheless have fundamentally good locations, since that is what will determine whether those neighborhoods remain accessible to as many lower-income households as possible in both the present and the future. But several observations on that subject are worth making:

      (1) The highest NUMBER of affordable units is not necessarily the same thing as the highest PERCENTAGE of affordable units;

      (2) Systematically favoring the preferences of existing residents, or at least the most vocal existing residents, often leads to artificial restrictions being placed on the number of affordable units;

      (3) Similarly, systematically favoring the preferences of incumbent politicians, their business friends, and other affiliated entities often leads to artificial restrictions being placed on the number of affordable units; and

      (3) The number of new affordable units is in part a function of the pace at which projects can move through the development process, and so policies and practices which materially slow down that pace can have the cumulative effect of reducing the total number of affordable units at any given time.

      Again, none of this is intended as a criticism of the goal of maximizing the present and future number of affordable units in these locations. Rather, I am pointing out that many times people who are purportedly interested in the goal of providing affordable housing are in fact supporting policies and practices that have contrary effects.

  5. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

    The other thing about Shawn’s use of “handing these properties to entities yet unknown” is, no. Land bank business will be circulated on agendas and recieve public hearings and scrutiny – which interested Councilors and their staff may participate in. “Entities unknown” implies there will be masked buyers waiting outside the land bank with the engine on, and nobody will ever be the wiser.

  6. MH

    Speaking of gentrification, somebody gentrified the frack out of what used to be Fanatics. They did a really good job.

  7. The Dude

    Is the current system so bad? Does this actually solve whatever problem you think currently exists? From what I’ve read so far, the answers are “No” and “No”.
    Currently city owned properties are sold by employees of the City government; they are directly accountable to the Mayor (democratically elected), indirectly to the City Council (democratically elected) which sets most of the rules and regulations [that are not established by state law, and would remain in place with a land bank], and subject to review by the City Controller (democratically elected). Why give that up? What’s going to change, other than add an ADDITIONAL layer of bureacracy, as opposed to “streamlining” any processes or procedures.

      1. The Dude

        Are those properties vacant because we don’t have a land bank, or because there is little demand for properties in certain neighborhoods?
        Will the land bank be able to sell those properties at a higher price?

      2. MH

        Selling faster is the same as selling at a higher price assuming the parcel is sold to someone who pays taxes.

    1. Brian Tucker-Hill

      So the basic idea behind these public land banks is threefold. One is that by collecting all the various necessary functions into one agency (clearing title, rehabilitating the properties, maintaining and potentially operating them, and finally selling them at some point), you can in fact do all that in a more efficient and timely manner. The second is that the existing sales processes aren’t necessarily the best way to maximize the financial return on these properties, nor to attract the best investors, and that a land bank with a more flexible disposition process can do better. Finally, if all that is true, it is possible a land bank can become self-financing, or at least close to it.

      All that said, I agree we should more think of this as a reorganization, not the creation of something entirely unprecedented. But it could still be a smart reorganization, and in fact there do seem to be precedents for new land banks achieving the goal of reducing vacancies at a higher pace and lower cost to the budget than their predecessors.

      1. The Dude

        What will the budget be to maintain and rehab all of those properties? The city/URA already owns many properties, so title clearance isn’t really the issue. As for the abandoned properties in private hands, I see no way for a land bank to clear a title in a different or faster way than the city already engages in now.

      2. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

        Dudemeister – My understanding is that proceeds from land bank sales can go into maintaining properties which the land bank or simply the City hasn’t moved yet. AND (responding to your comment further above) it’s definitely my understanding that the LB can decrease turnaround time from 2+ years to about 9 months… once a property gets started in the system.

        There is still a capacity issue as to how many properties we can put through the system at once, and what demand will bear, but if anything that should ameliorate concerns about that 70% of City properties which are vacant & delinquent getting seized and flipped all at once.

      3. MH

        The current system doesn’t seem to be designed to sell anything but a few plots and some houses. The city has this 72 page list of vacant properties. Nearly everything on it that I looked at is not buildable. The list includes every strip of city owned land bigger enough to hold a yard sign and the sides of various cliffs. To use it, you have to check everything on the Pittsburgh grid maps. Until recently, those were provided in either 90 pdf files, but now at least you can use the GIS. There is a useful list for a relatively small number of these vacant lots pulled out. Something like this listing but for a greater number of properties could help.

    2. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      My impression is, even if the City had the funding to process all the transfers (which is a real problem), the timeline of acquiring property surpasses the threshold of what is tolerable. It just takes too long to have invested time, energy & resources before one can begin building or remodeling, let alone utilizing or making a return.

      I’m wondering if the revenue from land bank sales can be effective to help maintain properties still held by the land bank or the City…

      1. Pete

        Thank for such a thoughtful conversation. I’ll add two things:

        1. The current system is reactive–the City does not acquire a property via Treasurer Sale unless another entity submits a request and a plan for the the property. This works fine for a few properties here and there. But if a developer or CDC wants to assemble multiple parcels for a larger deal (they kinds of deals are necessary to catalyze changes in the market) they are allocating scarce time and money resources knowing that they won’t be able to acquire the parcels for two years and that there is substantial risk of one or two of those parcels dropping out of the deal. There may actually be demand for this land, but the large degree of uncertainty inherent to the current Treasurer Sale process restricts the market’s ability to meet that demand. *Many of these properties cannot be acquired, due to title issues, in any other way.

        The land bank would be intended to proactively “bank” this land. It would take the risk from CDCs/Developers. And it would do it on a larger scale.

        2. The Land Bank is, by statue, empowered to function as a municipality’s property tax collector. To make a long story short, the land bank could make money by enforcing and collecting delinquent tax liens. Currently, Jordan Tax Service not only collects the City’s delinquent property taxes, it has full autonomy to choose which properties to pursue and how to pursue them. It doesn’t start the enforcement process on low-value properties because it doesn’t want to own them. If the land bank functioned as intended, it would probably generate a decent amount of additional revenue by actually enforcing delinquent property taxes more uniformly. (This is worthy of another huge thread. The Burgess/LaVelle amendments–in the name of protecting poor tenants and homeowners–would actually prevent the Land Bank from enforcing delinquent tax liens on occupied tax delinquent properties. I imagine that they would take issue with a more active property tax enforcement policy…)

      2. The Dude

        Not sure it is accurate that the city only takes delinquent properties if some entity submits a plan. That may trigger the process for some parcels, and light a fire under the city real estate dept workers, but there are hundreds of parcels up for tax/treasurer sale at each public aution – no bidders, and no “plans” for their redevelopment.

        It’s true Jordan has little interest in having the city take property – they make money on the additional collection fees.

        But let’s remember why the city contracted with Jordan in the first place – to try to get blood from a stone. Most of those properties have little market value, and if the city (or a land bank) zeroed out back taxes (and water bills, etc) to make the transfer attractive, then the city actually loses money.

      3. MH

        Your definition of losing money seem narrow. If the city can’t sell a property for enough to cover back taxes, it is losing not just the back taxes up to that point, but the added taxes from the years in which the land is not sold.

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