Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fact-checking tonight's land bank hearing

Posted By on Thu, Feb 20, 2014 at 4:41 PM

At 6:00 tonight in Council Chambers, there will be a public hearing on legislation introduced by city councilor Deb Gross that would create a Pittsburgh land bank.

In a nutshell, the legislation is an attempt to streamline the process by which blighted, vacant or tax delinquent land is reused. If you want a primer on the legislation, read this. If you want to read the legislation, here it is.

The legislation has drawn criticism from city councilors including Daniel Lavelle and Ricky Burgess as well as community groups that have expressed concern over how they will be involved in deciding what happens to land in their neighborhoods.

And while many of the arguments both supporting and criticizing the legislation are valid, there have been plenty of assertions from public officials and community organizations that stretch the truth. I've listed five common claims about the bill below along with whether the claim is true or not. This is far from an exhaustive list, so if there are other claims you've been hearing about the bill that you're interested in fact-checking, please leave them in the comments.

*The bill doesn't require community input over what happens to land in the land bank.

Mostly false. The bill, as introduced, requires that land is disposed in a way that is "consistent with the provisions of the City's Comprehensive Plan and any adopted neighborhood plans." In cases where there is no plan, the land bank will consult "with any community groups in the area."

(While there is an important debate about whether the bill should specify in greater detail how communities can hold the land bank accountable, and how community planning can happen in a systematic way, the claim that the bill doesn't require community input isn't true.)

*Only two out of seven board members are required to be a member of a non-profit or advocacy organization working in the field of housing or community development.

True. One mayoral appointee and one council appointee "shall be a member of a nonprofit or advocacy organization working in the field of housing or community development, or of civic associations […]"

*The mayor has control of the land bank board and can remove any of its members.

Mostly false. While the mayor appoints four of the seven land bank board members, and can remove them "at any time or without cause," he or she cannot remove the three council appointees.

*The land bank staff may have power over property in the land bank worth less than $50,000.

True. "The Board may delegate disposition authority to the staff of the Land Bank" if the property is worth less than $50,000.

*The land bank can kick you out of your house if you owe taxes.

Partly true. While the land bank can technically remove tax-delinquent occupants, both the state enabling legislation (which authorizes the creation of land banks) and Gross' bill require that there be a preference toward keeping people in their homes. Under state law, policies on owner-occupied properties "shall show a preference for keeping the former owner-occupants in their homes, whenever feasible."

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