A group of Wilkinsburg residents is now trying to achieve what Pittsburgh has failed to do over the past eight years: operate an effective land bank to deal with abandoned properties.

Made possible by a 2012 state law, land banks are public organizations that can buy tax-delinquent and abandoned properties, clear outstanding tax burdens and sell them to new owners to get them back in good repair and on the tax rolls. 

A group of active residents, including China Lee, Kate Luxemburg, Renee Dolney, Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson and Paul O’Hanlon, delivered a proposed ordinance to create the land bank to the borough council in June, after more than a year of preparation. It was posted publicly and the council approved it with little dissent.

“Our goals are to keep housing affordable in Wilkinsburg, create homeownership opportunities and help to avert gentrification and clean up the blight,” said Lee, an attorney and former council member. 

While preparations to launch the Wilkinsburg Land Bank move ahead, some in the borough are still trying to understand what it is or how it came to be without extensive public discussion.

The effort to launch a Wilkinsburg-based solution to the borough’s blight problem comes in the middle of a multi-year debate over whether the borough should join the city of Pittsburgh. The people behind the land bank project are staunchly against that idea. 

Land bank organizers said it will focus on selling properties to people who are currently renters, particularly Wilkinsburg residents who hold Housing Choice [Section 8] Vouchers. 

Plants surround the entryway to 824 Woodworth Street in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

O’Hanlon said he has worked for the past 20 years with Neighborhood Legal Services on helping Section 8 voucher holders become homeowners, work that naturally led him to become involved with the new land bank project. He said voucher holders are at a disadvantage compared to other buyers because of the additional bureaucracy they have to navigate.

“The land bank is an opportunity to steer houses toward buyers,” O’Hanlon said. “And we prefer to steer them toward Wilkinsburg residents, people who have been renting and have already chosen to live in the community.”

Avoiding Pittsburgh Land Bank 2.0

The organizers cleared the first hurdle in starting a land bank when the borough council passed an ordinance approving it. The legislation says the board will include representation from the county executive’s office and the Wilkinsburg School District, but both entities told PublicSource they have not been approached about the idea. 

The state government still has to approve of the land bank before it can begin operating. After that will come a more complicated process of gathering funding to buy property and conduct business, and board members said they do not yet know where that money will come from. Luxemburg said the group has met with some private funders.

If there is change happening, people can see it and say ‘Oh, something’s happening in Wilkinsburg.’ I think that’s important.

China Lee

Securing funds could be a key to avoiding the fate of the Pittsburgh Land Bank, which has yet to gain any traction in its eight years of existence. The Pittsburgh Land Bank did not receive a significant budget outlay until 2022, when the city earmarked $10 million in American Rescue Plan funds in a bid to jumpstart the listless body.

The Pittsburgh Land Bank sold one empty lot in its first seven years, according to a 2021 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report.  In recent months, according to meeting minutes, the land bank has focused on formalizing an agreement to allow properties to more easily flow between the city, the land bank and the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The land bank has also begun the legal process of clearing the titles of a number of properties.

Denise Edwards, who is president of Wilkinsburg’s council and is therefore entitled to a seat on its land bank’s board, said the borough’s relative simplicity will help, too.

“Because we are independent, we don’t have the bureaucracy of Pittsburgh,” Edwards said. “Our bureaucracy is pretty straightforward — it conforms with the law of course, but it is a little more user-friendly in many ways.”

She said that unlike in Pittsburgh, land use is “not a political football here.”

A shutter dangles from the window of 1312 Wood Street in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

O’Hanlon said Wilkinsburg can’t simply look to its western neighbor to deal with its sprawling blight problem.

“What Wilkinsburg needs, Pittsburgh’s not good at,” he said. “We need systems in place to keep [property] from being tax delinquent in perpetuity. … We need to do a better job than the city at getting people from being renters to homeowners. If we can start doing a better job on these things, Wilkinsburg can start to improve.”

Luxemburg, a staunch opponent of unifying the borough with Pittsburgh, said she’s “not an expert on why Pittsburgh is a miserable failure” at land banking, adding that political harmony in the smaller Wilkinsburg can make it easier to move the initiative ahead. “Wilkinsburg is small enough that we can move forward together instead of having competing forces.”

Borough discord

Wilkinsburg, though, is not an ultra-harmonious island in the sea of American democracy. 

The question of whether Wilkinsburg should join Pittsburgh is unresolved, and some in the borough still push for it. Others who oppose annexation or don’t have strong opinions on it nonetheless lack trust in those in charge of the borough. 

Jason Cohn, a former borough councilman and current Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation [WCDC] board member, was concerned by a lack of transparency around the creation of the land bank. The WCDC led the push for annexation, and Cohn sits on the borough’s Zoning Hearing Board.

“It’s next to a state secret,” Cohn said of the land bank plans. 

Edwards said the proposed legislation was posted at the borough library and on the borough website. The posted legislation, though, said “TBA” in place of named board members and the public never had access to the list of appointees before the legislation went through.

A broken window reveals a glimpse at the structure inside 933 Ramsey Street in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Another Wilkinsburg resident, Rayden Sorock, said questions about the proposal went unanswered at the June council meeting when the legislation was passed. The borough website has no meeting minutes or summary (there are none posted for any meeting since April). Edwards said the council followed all due process and “heard comment” on the ordinance before voting.

Lee said the organizing group was eager to get the wheels turning and build momentum.

“I want people to see things happening,” she said. “If there is change happening, people can see it and say, ‘Oh, something’s happening in Wilkinsburg.’ I think that’s important.”

Mirroring, but not joining Tri-COG

The land bank organizers have been engaging with the leader of the Tri-COG Land Bank, An Lewis, who said her organization put together a presentation on blight and land banking for a mix of Wilkinsburg residents and elected officials. Tri-COG covers 28 Allegheny County municipalities, including several that border Wilkinsburg. 

Tri-COG, which includes the Turtle Creek Council of Governments and the Steel Rivers Council of Governments, started in 2017. Lewis said it’s taken almost the entire five years since then to get the organization started and establish quality processes. Rather than join Tri-COG, the organizers in Wilkinsburg have opted to embark on their own startup process.

Lee said the group seriously considered joining Tri-COG but decided against it because they wanted to move more property than they thought Tri-COG could handle. Since its inception, Tri-COG has bought 81 properties and sold 31, and has 50 on hand currently.  

Lewis said, though, that Tri-COG is “moving into growth mode” and could up its volume of property by 50% this year and possibly another 50% next year.

832 Rebecca Avenue in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

McCarthy-Johnson, a former Wilkinsburg council member and current Homestead Borough manager, hinted that the tension around the annexation push influenced the decision to go it alone. “With a lot of the talk going on about annexation, they’re looking to keep it Wilkinsburg-centric,” she said.

“They want to show that we can do this here in Wilkinsburg,” said Sorock, who works as a project director at Grow Pittsburgh, which supports urban agriculture.

Edwards painted a different picture, centering the substantial task of improving Wilkinsburg, which needs to be done whether it is a part of the city or not.

“This is not the Wilkinsburg booster club or Westinghouse playing Allderdice on Saturday afternoon,” Edwards said. “This is an effort to do some redevelopment and prevent gentrification.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.

This story was fact-checked by Ashanti McLaurin.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...