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By Tom Smith
South Pittsburgh Reporter Editor 

Councilman O'Connor talks land banking at Hilltop block meeting

 


District 5 Councilman Corey O’Connor recently ventured to the Hilltop to discuss the land bank legislation the city recently adopted with members of the Mt. Oliver City/St. Clair Block Watch.

Pittsburgh City Council passed the Land Bank bill about one and a half months ago.

“There was a lot of controversy about it when it came out,” Mr. O’Connor began. “I was instrumental with writing the community benefits side of it.”

He explained a state ordinance allows the city to form a separate authority to purchase properties, rehab and resell them. The mayor’s administration considered it a key bill they wanted passed.

The councilman, in his opinion, said the first city council land bank bill didn’t have a lot of oversight or community input. After several community meetings and discussion among councilmembers, the bill passed 8-1.

Coming out of the community and council discussions, alterations and additions to the bill before passing included more community involvement. Initially, a nine member board with each councilmember choosing one representative will be appointed to write a “rough draft” of policies and procedures.

In roughly three months, a new nine-member board will be seated. There will be three members appointed by the Mayor’s Office; those members must have experience in finance, real estate and law.

Three members will be chosen from the three council districts with the highest amount of vacant and abandoned properties. Those members will be selected from council districts 2, 6 and 9.

The last three will be chosen at-large. However, they will be selected in a manner to assure all quadrants of the city will be represented.

“Yes, we understand that these three districts were the most. I can tell you that, your district, Bruce’s (Kraus) district, was fourth,” he said.

Once the board is formed, they will hold a minimum of five city-wide community meetings to talk about the policies and procedures on how the land bank will operate. City council will have to approve the final policies and procedures.

Every three years city council will have the opportunity to approve or not approve through audits the land bank process.

“If it’s formed, in three years and we say this isn’t working, we have an opportunity to dissolve it,” he said, adding they probably won’t know enough about it in the initial three years to get rid of it. He believes it will take at least six years to see if it is doing what it was intended to do.

Because of all the community input they want in the bill, he didn’t believe the land bank would acquire its first property for at least two years.

Every property sold to the land bank now must be approved by the board. The initial legislation required board approval only on properties over $50,000. Properties of less than $50,000 could have been approved by an intern.

“We didn’t like that,” Councilman O’Connor said.

For the first two to four years, all the properties sold by the land bank have to be approved by city council by at least a 5-4 vote.

Once a property is in the land bank, they will have to maintain it, including cutting the grass. Mr. O’Connor explained the land bank is required to “hire within” the community to do the maintenance.

A big question, he said, was how the land bank was going to pay for itself. To get the startup costs covered. The foundation community, including the Heinz Endowments and R.K. Mellon, stepped forward with letters of support to put the money up to get the land bank started.

For continued financing, he said he believed the land bank was entitled to keep half the city taxes on properties they sell for the first five years.

Some of the benefits to the land bank, Mr. O’Connor explained, were it would maintain properties the city doesn’t have money to maintain and it will hopefully help raise property values with the resale of properties.

“That’s the general gist of the land bank. At least the part I came in on to push it to be more community driven,” he said.

The councilman was questioned on how a property would be put into the land bank.

He explained the land bank would bring the properties they want to purchase, either vacant city properties or privately owned, to city council. Any city property sold has to go through city council.

The land bank board will look at properties on its own and take recommendations from city council members and residents through their city council representatives. Residents can also approach land bank board members about individual properties.

Residents also have an appeal process to prevent the land bank from selling a property to a buyer they feel is undesirable in the neighborhood. The residents need to get 15 signatures from an area to be determined which would require the land bank board to hold a community meeting in the neighborhood concerning the sale.

If the land bank board approves the sale over the community’s objections, the sale still has to go before city council for approval.

Mr. O’Connor was asked if the land bank would just “go on and on.”

He explained if the land bank acquired all 5,000 of the city’s vacant properties, if it even wanted all the properties, it would take at least eight years. And that wouldn’t be taking into account how long it would take to sell the properties.

Another area resident was concerned that the land bank isn’t required to sell any property to the highest bidder. How will the land bank decide who gets the property.

The councilman said the policies and procedures will determine the process for which buyer will get the property.

 

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