PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Pittsburgh rarely loses to Cleveland in football, but the same can’t be said about turning around blighted properties. The score is a lopsided 12,000-0.
Both cities have a huge problem with vacant decaying houses, but while Cleveland’s land bank is making a dent, Pittsburgh’s hasn’t rehabbed a single house.
When the mills closed and our population declined, many of our towns and cities were left with streets of vacant and decaying houses. There are tens of thousands throughout Allegheny County, and James Giles lives in the one inhabitable house on blighted Franklin Avenue in Wilkinsburg.
“Money into them or knock them down if you’re not going to do anything with them,” he said.
That was the idea behind the Pittsburgh Land Bank created nine years ago: take dilapidated, tax foreclosed properties and clear the titles so they can be torn down for affordable housing. Or rehab the salvageable houses and sell them to people who could not ordinarily afford them. But so far, none of that has happened.
“We keep talking about a land bank, but there’s been no real creation of the land bank,” said Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb.
In the past decade, the Pittsburgh Land Bank has not torn down, rehabbed, transferred or sold a single house. Compare that to our Rust Belt rivals in Cleveland. In its 13 years, the Cuyahoga Land Bank has brought thousands of properties back to life for Clevelanders.
“Land banking, in general, is a really tough industry to be in,” Cleveland Land Bank Executive Director Ricardo Leon said.
Pittsburgh’s problems have been manifold: lack of organization, lack of a true funding source, and lack of will to tackle problems such as the city’s cumbersome process of resolving tax delinquencies and clearing titles on properties, all of which Cleveland has been able to address.
Leon says its success has taken the cooperation and commitment from the city, non-profit organizations, the courts and others to streamline the process and fund the operation. In the end, he says, it’s been worth the effort.
“Land banking can offer so many resources to folks and can help spur development and help folks achieve their goals, that I think it’s worth investing time, energy and resources into,” he said.
Despite the history of failure, Councilman Ricky Burgess is hopeful things may change as the land bank now has $10 million in federal Cares Act funding and is going through a reorganization under the Gainey administration.
“Every time I see someone who does not have access to clean, decent housing, it breaks my heart. But I think now that we have the cash and we have the right model, I’m very confident you will see dividends from this investment very, very quickly,” he said.
Massive blight is a daunting problem, no doubt. But thus far the Pittsburgh Land Bank hasn’t truly committed to tackling it. While Burgess and others believe there’s a new resolve, there’s still a lot of catching up to do.