Land Bank rumble tonight: Who Makes the Calls?

Seems like there are lots of community leaders who truly want a City land bank to get to work, yet are also anxious that their communities understand they also share grave skepticism over “land grabbing”.

Also, there are a number who do not particularly want this (“her?” “his?”) land bank to pass, but are anxious not to get pegged as obstacles to civic transformation or reinvestment, and who prefer the present pattern of neglect, chaos and red tape.

So let the no-holds-barred face saving begin! A second public hearing begins at 6:00 PM this evening in City Council Chambers, broadcast on City Channel Comcast 13 and online.

Buses are Bridges has a 20 minute interview online with land bank bill sponsor Deb Gross. She characterizes the crux of public concern as transparency and accountability, naming three specifics:  governance and board appointees, process and reaction time, and how to flesh out the requirement that land bank actions comport with “adopted community plans”. She sounds very open to amendments at this point.

Gross also warns that “some people feel big CDC’s don’t really reflect their communities,” and that part of the rationale for the bill is that “you shouldn’t have to be Aggie Brose” to leverage wasted property in your neighborhood for good.

The Hill CDC has a thorough response to the bill online, its concerns fairly typical and representative of what is out there elsewhere (see even PCRG). Many of these are clearly legitimate and will require amendments, but the Comet would like to highlight just one in particular to bring a brand new point into the conversation:

City Council members would have little influence over the use of land in their districts which is problematic since they are freely elected by the people to represent the interests of their communities. (Hill CDC)

Yet at the last public hearing, at least one speaker urged Council to indeed go ahead and entrust this power to a more independent board, for fear of politics and corruption muddling the works.

Corruption is a strong word, but when we look at the present system, or at any future system in which all final determinations are made by City Council, we are not truly talking about all nine members of Council engaging in Socratic or um, any debate whatsoever. By long and very dearly-held tradition, when there is any question of development in any members’ district, large or small, all eight other members are expected to defer to the Council member in whose district it would lie. Breaking that tradition has been the fastest way to start a knife fight on Grant Street.

So we’re really talking about one (1) politician holding veto power over every land disposition question.

The Comet appreciates that these officials have been elected by their constituents. However, all members of City Council (yes, all nine of you, as well as every past member that has ever held office) tend to get markedly paranoid when an initiative is proposed by a constituent who is a nephew by marriage of somebody who you once saw eating lunch with someone who you once heard a rumor is considering running against you.

The rational behind those sorts of determinations much less the determinations themselves are never transparent in the slightest, but that is how the City has been operating.

The Comet agrees that it is not a good idea to give singular politicians effectively czar-like control over land reinvestment in their districts. Not only should it be a more independent process, it should be a professionalized process — undertaken by specialists appointed by and accountable to elected officials for sure, but not by the folks to whom politics is their primary bread and butter.

Of course, it also needs to be a transparent and public process. City Land Bank meetings should be advertised, public, televised and webcast, and include not just “public comment” but back-and-forth public engagement. Heck, maybe we should include a clause about impeachment proceedings, or votes of no confidence!

Yet we continue to believe that most of these land banking concerns cannot be addressed in the bill, but must be addressed in its own bylaws, procedures, and dramatic activity. That necessitates aiming public heat at the board no matter who they are or how their powers are proscribed.

Humankind is never going to design a governmental body that we can just wind up and let go like a toy car. It’s always going to be a struggle to get it to do what we want and need. But the solution is not to castrate government; it’s to empower it and then work hard, forever and ever and ever, on bullying it into operating well.

There was a time, after all, the correct pronoun for government wasn’t “it” but “us.”

At this instant, only the wealthiest developers and the most privileged CDC’s have the wherewithal to engage in the endless, complex and expensive process to make change — when and how it best suits them. That’s a bad thing. Let’s give the rest of us a weapon to wield, but include a comfortable grip and a strong sheath for protection. Once we are all so empowered, this cratered moonscape disinvestment we have come to view as “normal” won’t stand a chance.

Finally, it has come to our attention that Pittsburgh actually already has a land “reserve”. Albeit this is little-known of, non-transparent, not terribly agile and takes years rather than months for residents to employ. Maybe we should think of a City Land Bank as simply a way to reform our creaky and rusty old land reserve.

MORE: Homewood Nation, Part 1 and Part 2; see also HDCG; see also the CP Blogh’s Alex Zimmerman

25 thoughts on “Land Bank rumble tonight: Who Makes the Calls?

  1. SCM

    You seem to take for granted the idea that community plans are the best ways to allocate land resources, I think this is flawed. From my vantage point it seems that those who craft community plans are rarely able to see the full ramifications of the plans that they propose. Further they tend to emerge from the most concerned and active members of a community and this frequently means that the elderly, the bus users, the full time workers and the like get little input into the decision making process. Indeed in some neighborhoods community meetings are called over an email list and so everyone without a computer gets no notification.

    The land bank exists then, essentially, as a public subsidy for the community plan process. It will hold valuable land and make it available for those projects that fall into line with the community plan. It would seem then that the groups which craft these plans will function like a zoning board and I wonder if such duplication is a good idea. Further, there is a real risk that the plans of the community will not be profitable enough to entice the desired development and so the land bank will be stuck holding the bag – in this case a bunch of run down properties that even the city doesn’t want to deal with. Will the bank be accountable for the drug use, cat colonies a vandalism that such properties tend to attract?

    We should add to this that the City of Pittsburgh seems beholden to cronyism if not outright corruption and the board and authorities system positively facilitates that particular pathology. The work of these boards is very rarely subject to any scrutiny at all. This is why PWSA board members can enrich themselves with an opt-out insurance scheme, its why corrupt cops show up at the CPRB wearing headphones and smacking gum and its why the Parking Authority is able to vacuum up license plate data willy nilly with no oversight.

    Now the proposal is to create another board. One with an unclear mandate, one that might not be able to do the work demanded of it and one that will quickly be exposed to very little scrutiny. I don’t really like the system of just selling land to the highest bidder at auction as I know it short changes certain communities, but at least it seems a more streamlined and transparent system than the one proposed. Further it is realistic in that sense that it doesn’t demand scrutiny that likely won’t materialize.

    Finally, Mathew Yglesias seems to agree – for whatever that is worth…

    1. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      SCM, I share with you a degree of that skepticism about community plans. I do like how they can empower residents, build civic ownership and can take hyperlocal priorities into account which others miss — but I think they work best when crafted with the help broader stakeholders and within a comprehensive plan or at least an overall “vision” or “strategy”. I was hoping that raising “adopted community plans” as a concept implied we’d start putting more focus on vetting and crafting these officially, but it sounds like that mightn’t be feasible even if it was the original intention.

      On the point about another board & authority, and direct access: yes indeed, but if we put everything in the City’s hands that is going to overwhelm them, and things often still remain functionally buried and non-transparent. Maybe if all city Authority boards met in the same high-profile building and room, with the full schedule posted outside and online, it would be easier for beat reporters and residents to keep tabs on them all?

      1. SCM

        Perhaps that has promise but I suspect inertia and apathy are the greater obstacles to civic engagement than lack of information.

        Perhaps I am becoming conservative in my old age but it is increasingly difficult to support change that demands further change because the prospects of sustaining that which is demanded appear bleak. Take an issue like installing bike infrastructure. Currently, Pittsburgh has a small but growing community of occasional bikers. They are vocal about their desire for infrastructure that makes their favored transportation safer and more hospitable to drivers. Occasionally they are able to exploit tragedies for political support.

        But the things they demand are very expensive and will cut into the city’s drivability. Of course they will claim that more infrastructure will create more riders and so the cost will be justified after they are spent, but that doesn’t appear realistic. We live, after all, in a rainy northern city with brutal winters. So while I could support bike infrastructure if it appeared likely to drive growth that ‘further change’ that support for infrastructure depends on are unlikely to materialize.

        Now we have a Land Bank proposal that seems rife with the possibility that it will promote cronyism in the absence of oversight. You cheer-lead aggressive oversight but we both know it is unlikely to materialize. But that hope seems to spur on your support while I resign myself to what I take to be realism.

        Not to wade into conspiracy but one has to look very carefully at the source here too. Deb Gross campaigned on building community consensus and never once mentioned the land bank bill that she had up her sleeve. Further, her entire campaign has a strong wiff of cronyism about it. Since Gross appears, in her first act as Councillor, to be abandoning her promised strategy of building legislation through community dialogue she is currently enjoying the benefits of a failure to exercise oversight as, presumably, are her political backers. It is unlikely then that she will imbue the bill with any structures that are truly necessary to create oversight in the absence of a polity that will bully the bank to do its job well.

    2. Helen Gerhardt

      @SCM You ask what I think are some great questions in this original post, concerns you’ve raised that deserve far more space than I’ve already filled here at Bram’s blog (upholding old traditions of tl;dr!) but I promise I’ll consider them carefully and hope to answer directly after I catch up with a backlog of audio interviews on the land bank that I’ve been all-too-slowly editing with limited technical skills.

      I will let you know that I am no longer the ally or opponent of any elected official or candidate. I intend to focus my attention on issues, information and community impacts of legislative and executive decisions, policies and processes, rather than questions of personalities, intentions, or motivations. But I am determined to hold all elected officials responsible to respect community needs, input and free debate of crucial public interest.

  2. infinitebuffalo

    “Gross appears, in her first act as Councillor, to be abandoning her promised strategy of building legislation through community dialogue…”

    Seriously? The bill as first proposed was posted online in a format that invited wide comments; Gross and her staff have said several times this is a first draft which they are open to amending, in fact intend to amend; and City Council is at this very hour hosting an open meeting on the bill–not even the first one–which is expected to last three or four hours….. how much more “community dialogue” do you want?

    1. SCM

      You miss my point. This was not an issue the community desired. The election focused on issues like reform of the police bureau, public safety plans for all neighborhoods, affordable housing and Gross’s signature issue was traffic calming. She also promised to collaborate with neighborhood leaders to seek their input on needs. Indeed she was famously tight lipped about positive proposals. So much so that she refused to publish a policy statement a move many saw as an act of cowardice.

      Now it is clear that she had a plan all along and didn’t feel the need to share it with voters in her bid for election. That strikes me as dishonest. Moreover none of the issues debated in the campaign have found their way to her agenda including her traffic calming plans. And the community input process, i.e. her neighborhoods, has yet to take place.

      I want someone willing to present an honest account of her intentions and I want the bottom up process of converting needs into policy that was promised. Gross fails on both counts.

      1. Jerry

        I’m not surprised District 7 hasn’t solicited community input. The bill was written by Peduto’s office and given to Gross to submit to Council.

        “Although the bill is at the top of Mayor Bill Peduto’s legislative agenda, the community-inclusion process ‘was one of the things that was intentionally left a little bit vague so we could solicit feedback,’ says Matthew Barron, Peduto’s policy manager.”

    2. busesarebridges

      Helen here:

      Actually, I cut and pasted the legislation from the link provided at the City Council website into a Google doc and then invited commentary, both directly and by email, inspired by Natalia Rudiak who had done the same thing for her Open Data legislation.

      I’ve also incorporated commentary from various statements and positions published by community groups and from emails I’ve received both from groups and individuals that don’t feel comfortable commenting publicly. I’ll continue to do so, both on the current draft and on a new Google doc of revised legislation when it’s released.

      Deb Gross has been graciously positive in her response to the public Google doc and her staff let me know that they are regularly reading the commentary.

      1. SCM

        Helen, can you speak to what community demands were being responded to in creating this legislation?

        Further can you articulate why no mention of this project appeared during the campaign at a time when most everyone was asking Deb for her concrete policy proposals?

      2. busesarebridges

        @SCM: I’ll reply tonight when I get home from work. I may just write a blog post over at Buses Are Bridges to keep from dropping tl;dr all over Bram’s comment section, cause I sure have much plenty to answer your first question.

        As regards Deb’s role in introducing legislation partly shepherded into being by her predecessor in her office (along with other elected and organizational shepherd-partners) my information from a range of contrasting sources certainly doesn’t match your depiction of the situation – although I guess such guesses are likely when only scraps of the land bank legislation’s fairly long history are public.

  3. Brian Tucker-Hill

    A couple thoughts:

    If there is in fact a need that a new land bank program could address, and if the final form of the new land bank program is in fact determined through an open process of hearings, community meetings, social media conversations, and so on, then I am having trouble understanding why it matters whether or not this particular possibility was discussed in any particular electoral campaign. In other words, this is representative democracy, not direct democracy,

    This is easier said than done, but in broad outline I think the goal should be to give the most local stakeholders a very real opportunity to contribute their ideas, insights, priorities, concerns, and so forth when it comes to land-use policy, without giving them actual control or veto power. The basic thought behind that balance is that the most local stakeholders often will be very valuable contributors in the sense of helping to shape land-use policy in particular cases such that it can achieve its goals more creatively, reliably, equitably, and efficiently, but also that NIMBYism is a very real threat to responsible land-use policy.

    1. SCM

      It is also a blow against representative democracy to present oneself as offering a kind of leadership style that you don’t intend to deliver on. Gross was repeatedly asked for concrete policy proposals and she claimed to have none and instead would begin a series of community discussion so that the needs of her constituents could be translated into policy.

      But those community meetings haven’t generated a demand for land bank legislation and it is now clear that she planned to move on this legislation even during the election. As such, she appears to not even be the ‘representative’ she promised to be.

      A desire for direct democracy has nothing to do with it.

      1. MH

        I really find this an odd complaint. Is it that a representative isn’t representative if they seek input after presenting (but with plenty of time before anything is enacted)? It’s not possible to do anything as an elected official if that’s the case.

      2. busesarebridges

        My own interest is in addressing the substance of and needed revisions to the land bank legislation that has been introduced. I have zero interest in revisiting what policy initiatives Deb Gross did not present during her campaign or what she might have been intending to introduce – unless she is directly contradicting campaign promises or has been directly, demonstrably deceptive.

        We cannot know motive or intent without evidence. If you’ve got some concrete evidence of intentional deception, present it, because I have below-zero interest in whisper campaigns of any sort, especially those based on speculations that require mind-reading skills I have WAY-below-zero faith in.

      3. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

        All of the above, and… for the record, vacant properties are ALWAYS the hugest issue in City Council races. That’s not to say she campaigned on a land bank as a solution (it sounds like she picked up that torch from Dowd’s office and PCRG) but there is absolutely an intense demand to address the problems that land banks are geared to address.

      4. busesarebridges

        And I totally don’t care if she did intend to introduce this bill (again, unless at some point she said she wouldn’t) I think she’s very responsibly chosen to respectfully address heat for stirring up needed criticism and controversy and the calls for revision that would have been inevitable no matter what Council member introduced the legislation.

        Yes, I absolutely do wish she’d invited more leaders and organizations from communities that would be impacted to the drafting table and in light of the long history of redlining and racist housing/land use policy in Pittsburgh that has had such damaging impacts, I think the uniform whiteness of the authors and working group who developed the foundations is a serious concern and mistake and must be rectified in concrete ways going forward.

      5. Brian Tucker-Hill

        You’ll have to show me what campaign statements you are referring to, because offhand I don’t recall her making the sort of promise you are apparently attributing to her (that she would never introduce a draft bill before first holding community meetings on the subject).

        More importantly, I still don’t understand why you think this matters. It seems clear to me, in fact, that doing it in the order it was actually done has really helped along the community discussion about the issue. See, for example, Helen’s post of 4:21 above–all that was made possible by having the draft legislation available. And there are many others looking at the actual bill, pointing out concrete concerns, and proposing possible amendments. That’s great!

        So even if Gross did imply she would always have meetings before rather than after introducing draft legislation (a promise I again do not personally recall her making), it would be a good thing if she has reconsidered, because this process seems to be working pretty well. And in fact to the extent she promised she was going to try to give her constituents a truly meaningful opportunity to discuss policies that would affect them–and that is the sort of promise I do recall her making–I think that is a more important promise to try to keep than the sort of promise you are attributing to her.

      6. SCM

        If we are just going to announce how little we are interested in one another’s opinions we might better meet our desires by going back to whatever business we are supposed be conducting today.

        I don’t see why this has to blown into whisper campaigns or dismissal.

        I have only asserted two facts. One, Gross appeared to have legislation designs during the campaign that she chose not to reveal. Two, this is not the style of leadership Gross promised during the campaign.

        These two facts are salient to any discussion about community trust. And Bram, at least, seems willing to acknowledge the importance of trust. (see quote below). Land Bank legislation will stand or fall on issues related to public trust as the hearing last night revealed.

        Further neither Helen nor Bram has offered reasons for trusting that the creation of another authority -the kind of body that typically works to obscure scrutiny and reward patronage- will result in useful and uncorrupt progress on the issue of dilapidated properties.

        On the other hand I have pointed to a notable economist that suggest such structures are likely to increase the appearance, if not the presence, of corruption, will result in less useful purposes for such properties and I have provided reason to doubt the community desire for such legislation.

        And now what is good for the goose is good for the gander – address these points or I’m simply not interested in what you have to say!

        Begin Bram’s quote….

        “In regards to your question, what can we write into the legislation to reassure members of poor, minority &/or historically exploited communities that this land bank will not work counter to their interests, let me take a crack at an honest answer…

        NOTHING. There is absolutely nothing we can put down on paper that will counterbalance people’s extremely rational judgements based on years of experience about the way the world works. If we DID design excellent, legal, and practical language, those residents would be very correct to object, “Yes, but what’s to stop them from totally ignoring that and doing what they want anyway? You know it’s all about grabbing our land, turning a profit, and pushing us out. We didn’t just fall off the turnip truck!””

      7. Brian Tucker-Hill

        I think whether creating a new institution for this purpose is a good idea very much depends on its ultimate mandate. I would tend to agree that if it is given a broad policy-making mandate, one which blends elements of Zoning, City Planning, City Council, and maybe more, then it could be a troubling step. On the other hand, if its mandate is mostly just to clear and sell as many properties as possible, while responsibly managing its inventory in the meantime, then it probably makes sense to have an institution dedicated to that purpose.

        Of course I realize a lot of people right now are pushing for a broader mandate to get packed into the legislation. But there are different ways of doing that, and one of the simplest and least problematic would be to simply leave the relevant mandates where they currently reside. So Zoning would still have the final say on zoning, City Planning on planning issues, City Council could even set for itself a final yes/no over major dispositions of property, and so on.

        I also realize that this is not necessarily what was meant, but this would in fact achieve the vision of people in the neighborhoods with the most vacant properties having precisely the same sort of say over the disposition of those properties as people in Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, and so on currently have. So hopefully a case for that approach can and will be made during this discussion process.

    2. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      Just to complete the comment SCM clipped which I wrote over at Helen’s blog… “This is not to say we should not work to improve the bill to make everything run as accountably and transparently as possible, and it’s certainly not to say we’re already there. It is to say that the ONLY way to improve the morale of community members towards local government, will be to see positive results over time. Like, ten years down the road. If we wait until all, most, or even a good many community members feel positive about what is about to happen in their neighborhoods, we will be stuck with more abandonment, alienation and the exact political opportunism that already exists for another century. Let’s listen honestly to all the input we can, process it, and move forward with the best possible legislation without waiting for it to be celebrated by residents whose righteous skepticism has been building since 1776.

      This was all in the context of Helen and Deb’s discussion about, what can we put into the bill to decrease suspicions in minority communities?

      1. Helen Gerhardt

        Well, I do think it requires some mighty mindreading on Bram’s part own to assert that sweeping “NOTHING.” Having spent the last few weeks talking to leaders and residents in the communities that would be most affected, I believe that their answers don’t beg to differ. They demand that their elected officials differ from such conclusions by actively supporting revisions to the legislation that mandate concretely enforceable protections for community representation and equitable acquisition/dispensation of properties by a land bank that will actively help repair damage caused by redlining and racist housing and land use policies practiced in the past. They demand a community-accountable land bank – yes a clear majority of conversations thus far do indeed indicate such an accountable landbank is strongly desired as a crucial tool to revitalize their neighborhoods that have been deeply mired by tax delinquency and blight.

        The voices of some of these people will be featured at the Buses Are Bridges blog – they will speak best for themselves and their perceptions of the interests of their neighborhood. But I have heard a broad-based consensus from both organizations and individuals that they would indeed be reassured by these particular changes in the legislation:

        * Expanding the number of board members from seven to eleven, with 3-4 of those members to be residents of communities most affected by the operations of a land bank. However, these community members are debating criteria for candidate expertise/experience/representational fairness and process suggestions for nomination or election of representatives by communities.

        * Mandating affordable housing for low-income residents is crucial, although percentages and how such guarantees will be mandated is currently being discussed in depth. The Hill District Consensus Group and Hill CDC have developed very specific demands for their own neighborhoods, which will be presented at the blog.

        * Protections for owner-occupied tax-delinquent property from acquisition by a land bank

        *Clear protections against speculators.

        *Requiring assessments of community social and economic benefit and opportunity for neighborhood review of potential dispensations with plenty of advance and widespread notice of such public deliberations. HDCG has especially focused on the need for transparently public review of “development involving public funds/financing or multi-unit/use private development”.

        There are plenty of other positive answers I’ve heard as to what would reassure minority community residents, but those are the ones that have come up repeatedly.

        And yeah, all this answer will be over at Buses Are Bridges, too. Thanks for a great post, Bram.

      2. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

        Thank you, Helen!

        Actively supporting revisions to the legislation that mandate concretely enforceable protections for community representation and equitable acquisition/dispensation of properties…

        We should try our best. Nothing I write should be construed to mean we shouldn’t work hard at it.

        I just suspect there’s no way to mandate either good or equitable decision making (if so, can we just go ahead and mandate that City Council and the Mayor be equitable?) and I think the desires of “the community” (whichever individuals in the community we decide that means) need to be balanced together with a comprehensive strategy for the City and the expertise of folks who’ve devoted their lives to this field.

        There are bound to be many parcels situated in such a way in which affordable housing is actually neither sustainable nor the best thing. I don’t want to back ourselves into a corner in which we’re trying to force an August Wilson Center style wish-fulfillment fantasy on every block.

        Land banks are a way to more swiftly put abandoned “no man’s land” property to more productive use by residents and enterprises, which is something generally speaking we all want. I suspect land banks are an ill-fit tool for precipitating The Revolution, though again we should pursue what is feasible.

  4. MG Guy

    Great statement Bram. Haven’t read through the comments yet, but could you name a few of the “privileged CDCs” that you referenced, and perhaps some of the changes they’re wrought?

    1. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      I don’t want to single out too many, because we should all manage to make ourselves so privileged, but I think ELDI and the changes in “Eastside” are probably the clearest example.

  5. Pingback: Conversation with Reverend Ricky Burgess: land bank as weapon or tool? | Buses Are Bridges

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