Land Bank: Real Talk, Politics and Waving the Tattered Shirt

This is not another piece about why a public Land Bank might be necessary.

It is a piece about the nature of the political “conversation” we’re having, and how we’re going to be stuck with it until it resolves.

Marimba Milliones of the Hill CDC, during a WESA interview with the land bank co-sponsors, called in and precisely identified the difficulty much of the City is having:

I think that the discussion in process has lacked the depth and the genuine desire to collaborate that’s necessary for communities to fully buy-in — and when I say “communities” I mean those most impacted. So what we have right now is a City Council that is divided, and this is happening mostly around racial and class lines. And that causes me great consternation relative to pushing this forward so quickly. So my question is one around the urgency. You know, why was this bill introduced the second week of City Council, being in session on January 14th, and what is the urgency of pushing through a bill that’s going to impact every single City neighborhood without really doing that deep dive. Also, I’d like to say that Councilman O’Connor talked a little bit about the City-owned properties and those not being able to be moved over without first having City Council approval, but the reality is that these neighborhoods that are most impacted have a high level of tax delinquent properties which are privately owned — and those properties could be moved over much more quickly. That’s a major concern. And so I’d really like to ask Councilwoman Gross also: are we repeating history? Are we missing our opportunity to change the direction our legacy has put us in? I think that we’re missing an opportunity to have that deeper-dive conversation. Land banks in other cities were most impactful because those cities were hit very hard by the mortgage crisis, which Pittsburgh did not experience that same level of crises. So I’d like to just ask the councilors to slow this process down, to engage in a deeper conversation with the communities that are mostly impacted, and I’d like to get some responses to that. (WESA)

Quickly, although Pittsburgh eluded the mortgage crisis by default, we did suffer the collapse of the steel industry and an insane 50% population dip, not to mention the loss of all that capital. So I would argue those crises are fairly similar.

But more importantly, Milliones references class, race, politics and unseemly haste, which together with the City’s checkered development history are indeed properly front and center here.

These deserve good, frank responses — and she’s right that Pittsburgh deserves a “deeper dive” than the present shameless conversation within Council is affording.


I come to this with a different perspective than many others — not that my street lacks for rotting, vacant husks by any measure, and yet not that I arrive to this conversation with identical experiences as many fellow Pittsburghers — but specifically, as someone who co-wrote and helped to introduce stalled City legislation.

I naturally assumed the thing to do was research all ways to solve a problem, write a bill including the many tools the City might need or want, see it introduced and then let the whole town and the Council hash it out, democratically, amending it however they might choose. Simple and straightforward.

Boy I was wrong. And it appears Deb Gross may have made the same naive mistake. The difference is that I got tarred immediately as a prude, whereas Gross got feathered immediately as a land-grabber.

The City has been hemming and hawing about land banking legislation for 15 years. That’s something I learned recently from Ronnell Guy of the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing. Not surprising, in that decaying property is something that has dominated every single City Council election since time immemorial.

From that perspective, why not introduce it during one’s first Council meeting? No time like the present. And this was actually important, it might take a while. Why not get the conversation started? Make a splash.

On its introduction, Gross was actually pilloried for having introduced a bill that was already in the works; that she must be incapable of thinking of anything new. That was before it became clear how popular it was, and that a more effective attack against it would be to say that it’s brand new and being rushed through.

So let’s take a look at the “rush”…

The legislation was introduced on January 14th. It is now two and a half months later. Council still has not scheduled even a preliminary vote, let alone the special discussion or “post-agenda” on it. There have been two formal public hearings — both of which featured multiple speakers demanding why Council has not yet held… a public hearing.

You don’t suppose the political opposition has taken a page out of the Republican playbook against Obamacare, do you? “They’re shoving it down our throats! It’s tyranny! Get hype!”

Gross’ initial legislation was thin. It included too few community protections, or strictures on the board makeup. It was a good framework, but sparse.

It’s a whole lot better now, precisely because of months worth of community dialogue. It could get better still, if we all were to approach it seriously.

But for weeks after the new amendments were inserted — or actually, to date — opponents of the bill refuse to acknowledge that anything at all has changed, carefully referencing “the original legislation”. “The original legislation”. “But you see, if you look at the original legislation…”

Maybe after this experience, Councilwoman Gross will only introduce near-perfect bills, since Council discussion is no place for constructively improving anything, but for stress-testing it. Maybe she should have anticipated the gist of community concerns — no wait, I’m prepared to say she definitely should have — but maybe she was just a little green.

That’s right: green. Not predatory. Not lacking in respect. Not a lackey of wealthy speculators. Just green — it’s distinctly possible!

Have you noticed that most real estate agents oppose the land bank? It makes perfect sense. The land bank can offer “trump bids” at Treasurer Sales, undercutting Howard Hannah and its ilk. So instead of community land falling directly and irredeemably into the free market, it actually falls under public control. It cuts out real estate speculators, and they hate it.

Council members make political accusations against each other. We’re never going to get anywhere if we wait until we have a consensus on each Council members’ “actual intentions,” and it’s an immature argument. Maybe we should focus on the bill itself and leave the incessant badmouthing about motive and intent to psychoanalysts, philosophers and psychics.


But we seriously need to address the notion that Gross and O’Connor should have worked on the bill internally longer: with their colleagues, with more community groups and the rest of the City. That is the way I personally would like to see legislation get crafted, too. It seems sensible and more respectful to do it that way, right?

Right. Me too.

Unfortunately, it is a truism that when any member starts peddling legislation of mass discussion openly, it is instantly at risk for being preempted and co-opted by others. Indeed, some members have the habit of rushing out legislation as fast as humanly possible to head off conversations they do not trust in others’ hands, thereby framing it in their own terms. And yet they never seem to see the need to ask anyone else first.

Is that a legitimate reason for declining to talk things over with colleagues beforehand? Perhaps not. But it is as rational a reaction as it is common. Standard everyday procedure, by everyone.

Besides which, it is an interesting question whether or not certain Council members really were not informed of this Land Bank legislation beforehand, nor invited to work on it, as they now claim. As a matter of fact — no, whoops, that was off-the-record. I can’t possibly violate that trust. I’d better delete this whole paragraph.


Finally there is the question of race and class as it relates to the 5-4 split we see now supporting and opposing the bill. Which is uncomfortable for everyone.

Let’s take a look at how things stand. The land bank has general support from Kraus, Rudiak, O’Connor, Gilman and Gross — and is opposed by Harris, Burgess, Kail-Smith and Lavelle.

I don’t like division or partisanship any more than Marimba, but unfortunately (and I could have told you this back in July of last year) every single bill of consequence meriting controversy in Pittsburgh for the next two years is going to have Kraus, Rudiak, O’Connor, Gilman and Gross on one side of it, and Harris, Burgess, Kail-Smith and Lavelle on the other. Get used to it.

That’s not class, that’s politics. There is a class overlap at work, but the divisions we see are mainly about who decided to cast their lot with whom a long time ago. To the extent it’s about class, it’s mostly relating to some politicians with bases individual and independent enough to make a cleaner break with legacy institutions, and other politicians more dependent on inherited networks with inherited interests in the status quo, not rocking boats, and not making this “#New Whatever” look very appealing at all.

That doesn’t make anyone bad people or bad representatives. But it does mean we can expect that on just about everything from “Free Ice Cream” legislation to the “Anti-Puppy Punching” bill, with minimal variation, that DH, RB, TKS & DL are going to appear on one side of issues and BK, NR, CO, DG & DG are going to appear on the other. Take it to the bank.

Welcome to 2014 and 2015. I’m not thrilled about it either.


But I for one am not in favor of putting all City business on hold until the politicians who have relegated themselves to the minority agree they have been compromised with sufficiently. When Republicans decide to collaborate constructively with President Obama, I will retract that statement instantly. But it has been six years and it’s not looking so hot. For good reason: these two parties wish to accomplish different things — one wishes to “fix” problems and one wishes to “roll things back” to preserve the status quo.

There are some serious apprehensions in the Black community about land acquisition going back to the Civic Arena, and prior and thereafter, but I believe these are nothing that cannot be surmounted with frank, constructive and open engagement instead of … well, I digress.

Council President Bruce Kraus points out that his Council District ranks third in terms of both vacancy and tax delinquency. Why then is he on the so-called “high class” side? He beat a crusty old incumbent to get into office and hasn’t looked back, that’s all, and that’s why he can support the land bank.

Screen Shot 2014-04-01 at 4.25.22 AMPittsburgh’s land bank initiative is facing skepticism from Pittsburghers who fear change even more than they desire it, and from Black Pittsburghers who fear the City when it says “We’re here to help.”

Those rational skeptics are being exploited by a few who wish to cling to their back room veto power, and who want to wrest real (mayoral) power back from the new dweeb who can’t smile properly in photographs.

Fortunately, those are in the minority. Does that mean the majority should now force the land bank through to passage?

No. Council’s majority should continue to negotiate directly with the apprehensive and the fearful, for a while longer. We could still make the bill better and provide better accountability. Changing the dissolution requirements so that City Council can credibly threaten to dissolve the land bank if it truly goes off the rails, for example, would be a fine place to explore.

If we refuse to cave into these scorched-earth tactics, if we negotiate directly with resident groups and come away with an optimal bill, then Pittsburgh not only will have learned how to surmount a political impasse that belongs in a past administration — but it will have learned how to come together in common purpose. Do that a few more times, and we may even develop a little mutual trust in folks on the other sides of bridges.

14 thoughts on “Land Bank: Real Talk, Politics and Waving the Tattered Shirt

  1. Brian Tucker-Hill

    I’m not sure it is stable, but I actually think people should be pretty happy with the current structure of City governance. As I argued in the context of the District 7 election, there is a lot to be said for a “parliamentary” government, one where the chief executive and legislative majority are part of the same party/coalition, particularly if you are a progressive sort–it maximizes accountability and allows parties to give their policy ideas an honest try. And if they fail, then a new government can be elected and it will have a relatively free hand to change things again.

    For the same reasons, certain sorts of conservatives fear such a structure creating a “tyranny of the majority,” but in practice it doesn’t work out that way too often in mature democracies. That is because majorities (at least in mature democracies) tend to be fragile, and so the present majority generally feels the need to be at least somewhat responsive to the “loyal opposition”, or at least its more well-founded (or merely popular) criticisms.

    And that, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with the federal government today. In 2012, a majority of people voted for a Democratic President, a Democratic Senator, and a Democratic Representative. But the Democrats didn’t win the House due to gerrymandering and such, and the filibuster means the Senate is also a Republican veto point (now except for appointments). That makes it nearly impossible for any sort of significant legislation to get passed, but blurred accountability means voters are not as clear on who to blame as they should be.

    Anyway, it is what it is, but I personally don’t think we should be distressed by the relatively hard coalitions in the City today.

    1. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      Tucker-Hill, you almost have me wanting to ask whether or not you’re a “native Pittsburgher”! Not that such matters, but it’d explain your tolerance for “relatively hard coalitions.” To my experience, in these parts we experience distress any time a vote is not 9-0 and representatives give each other mean looks.

      1. Brian Tucker-Hill

        Bingo–I’m not a native Pittsburgher (I was born a Michigander, if you are curious). And to make matters worse, I am actually a resident of Wilkinsburg these days, although I still consider myself a stakeholder in the City (seeing as how my wife and I both work there, our kids are in schools there, and so forth). And although I first arrived in Pittsburgh over 20 years ago now, I realize I am still an outsider in many natives’ eyes.

        And in fact I am more than willing to agree I still have a lot to learn about the area and its history. On the other hand, I also think having kicked around a few other places before settling here sometimes helps me see a bit more clearly how things could be changing in Pittsburgh in coming years, in both good and bad ways.

        In any event, love us or loathe us, us non-natives are going to continue to be a part of the conversation going forward.

      2. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

        I should hope so! And by the way I don’t think residents of Wilkinsburg are considered “suburbanites” like the rest. If there ever IS an opportunity for Pittsburgh to conduct a “land grab”, it will be of Mt. Oliver and Wilkinsburg in that order, and will be conducted less in the style of Deb Gross than Vladimir Putin.

      3. Brian Tucker-Hill

        We’ve already invited in the garbage and firefighting trucks–a few tanks shouldn’t be a problem.

        Incidentally, there is an old joke going around Wilkinsburg:

        “Take our school district . . . please!”

      4. Brian Tucker-Hill

        I signed a petition to put a referendum to allow liquor licenses on the 2013 primary ballot (the Wilkinsburg CDC was leading the effort). Unfortunately, it fell way short of the necessary number of signatures. We can try again in 2015, when likely fewer signatures will be needed (it is based on the preceding general election, and 2014 will not be a presidential election). But apparently there are also a lot of residents worried about nuisance bars and such.

  2. Justin Cummings

    I don’t think that real estate agents are for or against it. They should be for it though. Real estate agents don’t go to the T sales. Most of them don’t have cash to purchase properties like that. Most people with that kind of cash show up for the auctions and represent themselves or hire an attorney who can do a title search and issue title insurance rather than an agent do do their bidding. I say this as a real estate agent who has sold more than 500 homes in the city and as a small time landlord / developer who has owned and developed over 15 properties and has never purchased anything at a Treasurer’s sale.

    The one thing that real estate agents want and have wanted for the past 4 years is inventory. It is getting old telling our client that the demand is much higher than the supply in the East End.

    Free up the vacant properties, make them livable, put a price on them and people will live there.

    1. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      At the two public hearings I attended, each of them had a couple folks in real estate speaking out against a land bank, meaning any land bank — each referencing the trump bids — however you’re right in that that opposition didn’t seem organized.

      There might be some agents for it too, though they don’t seem to be speaking out as much. Thanks, Justin.

      UPDATE: Here’s a link to an article from a couple years ago that has a whole section called “Land Banking Against Speculators”. Maybe that doesn’t mean real estate professionals at all, just investors.

      1. Justin Cummings

        Yeah, I would say that real estate agents as a whole should be for it if it creates more inventory. I can’t speak for all of them, but real estate agents simply want houses to sell people and people who want to buy them without too much red tape.

        I can see “folks in real estate” aka “folks in real estate with millions of dollars to invest in real estate” being against it because it undermines their ability to get sweet deals.

        I also understand their concerns because once some of these properties are in the hands of the city, they could easily remain boarded up for many more years versus a developer or a future homeowner planning to bring it back to life.

        If the city can trump bids over buyers who have funds and the ability to make the property livable, then the city needs to have an immediate game plan for the property rather than letting it rot from the roof downward simply because they have the authority to do so.

      2. Helen Gerhardt

        Yes, based both local and national patterns, it’s big banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America who have foreclosed on residential properties, corporate owners, and out-of-county speculative investors that are clearly far more responsible for current conditions of blight than locally based small to mid-sized real estate companies.

        From Land Banks and Land Banking by Frank Alexander:

        Most property tax enforcement systems were designed in the late nineteenth century….these systems did not anticipate the emergence of out-of-state investors in low-value speculative properties. In all four of the major first-generation land bank communities, there was a growing inventory of properties because (i) properties were never sold at tax sales because tax liens exceeded fair market value and state law set minimum auction bids at the amount of delinquent taxes, (ii) property tax foreclosures resulted in sales to investors, but these investors elected neither to invest in improvements to the property nor pay subsequent years’ taxes, leaving the tax- delinquent inventory to be in a constant state of repetitive tax foreclosures, or (iii) by virtue of state law, the properties not sold to private investors automatically defaulted to the ownership of the local government, leaving the governmental departments with the most costly properties to maintain and the least resources and capacity to do so.” (p 19)

        …Abandoned commercial and retail properties have different forms of title defects. Owned by single-asset corporations or by multiple layers of single-asset limited partnerships, these properties have been economically
        written off by the owner. The corporations become defunct or inactive with no viable addresses of record. Adding to the complexity, the properties may have multiple mortgages that remain open of record, and yet they are held by defunct or inactive corporations.
        (p 24)

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