Conversation with Reverend Ricky Burgess: land bank as weapon or tool?

Council member Rev Ricky BurgessPosted by Helen Gerhardt

Reverend Ricky Burgess has lived in Homewood for most of his life – his family moved there when he was nine months old – and he has pastored at the Nazarene Church for three decades. He has watched a lot of change in Homewood over those years.

“I have seen its destruction,” he says, “…when I grew up there it was a multi-ethnic, diverse community. Homewood Avenue was one of the major business districts in the City of Pittsburgh and it was filled with people. Every house had multiple families living in it – my own house, my father rented the second and third floor out so we had three families in the house I grew up in…I’ve watched it decay and become poor and violent. The violence and economic devastation are the events that led me to run for Pittsburgh City Council.”

Public safety, economic development, racial and class equity – as so many of the conversations at this blog have made clear, these issues are inseparable in Pittsburgh. As Council Member, Reverend Burgess has attempted to reform policing, working with many organizations across the City to address the development of what he calls a “crisis” in police-community relations. As Chair of the Housing Authority, Rev. Burgess has worked to comprehensively plan development that interlinks not only affordable, mixed-income housing and economic growth, but also social services, employment, and education.

In this audio conversation, Reverend Burgess expresses grave concerns about how the land bank legislation introduced by fellow Council Member Deb Gross might allow exploitative development and displacement of residents from the communities that have for so long been “left to rot” by local government. He has met with many community groups over the past weeks, heard their concerns and partnered with fellow City Council Member Daniel Lavelle to introduce amendments.

With a long-time debt of damaging neglect to make up for, Burgess asserts the special responsibility of Council to address three central concerns for communities that would be most affected by a land bank: protection, participation, and benefit.

Of course, as numerous people on both sides of the debate over this potential land bank have declared to me, “the devil is in the details.” On at least one thing we and many other concerned Pittsburgers are agreed. As the Reverend put it: “If there was ever a time when we need residents to stand up and speak out on the protection of their community, it’s now.”

Audio of conversation (twenty minutes)

UPDATE (or more accurately, my own OAR in midstream.)

During this initial research phase, I’ve been reserving most of my own opinions on the land bank legislation as I listen to a wide range of voices, perspectives, and concerns, only a fraction of which I’ve been able to present here at the blog in these audio recordings. But I do find myself moved to interject one of my big concerns about one of the amendments proposed by Reverend Burgess and Daniel Lavelle.

(7) City Council Approval. City Council, by unanimous vote, must approve all proposed dispositions of Real Property of the Land Bank.

Such a requirement seems designed to keep land bank dispositions as tied up by lengthy political wrangling and territorial feuds as by all the property title tangle the bill was designed to unravel. These doubts have been borne out by both recent Philadelphia landbanking experience and by thoughtful warnings by such land banking practitioner-scholars such as Frank Alexander. In Land Banks and Land Banking he writes:

A land bank must have adequate authority to target properties for transfer, and to complete transfers, without seeking additional approvals from other levels of local government. If the local government’s governing body, such as the city council or county commission, insists on final review and approval of each property transfer, one of the purposes of a land bank is largely undercut. Such approval requirements will either increase substantially the length of time required for a disposition, undercut the coherence of disposition policies, or both. Instead, a land bank’s controlling documents, as approved by the local government’s governing body, should establish the core public policies and delegate to the land bank board and staff the authority to administer its activities.


In two of the comments below, I asserted that a land bank would be able to apply for federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding – true in the past, but I did not do enough research on the current status of the program. Thanks to Shawn Carter, Chief of Staff for Council member Rev. Ricky Burgess, for pointing out that the fourth year of NSP funding was not approved by Congress.

About helengerhardt1

Helen Gerhardt: Pittsburgher, writer, member of the Commission on Human Relations: nothing written at this blog reflects the views or positions of the Commission.

15 thoughts on “Conversation with Reverend Ricky Burgess: land bank as weapon or tool?

  1. What struck me was Rev’s insistence that the City properly maintain its large stock of vacant and abandoned land, but not as much that it do the financially sustainable thing and transfer it to entities that can actually afford to maintain it, and presumably use it. The City will just never have the money to properly maintain all the land it inherited through cataclysmic abandonment, let alone crumbling buildings we’d prefer to rehabilitate and adapt. But at the same time, fearing the high costs of redeveloping neighborhoods from within, he argues it’s more affordable to let private interests redevelop by “nibbling around the edges”. Which one would think, lessens the community voice in outcomes.

    His consistent fear is speculation — but the City is least of all in any position to be a speculator of last resort. We need an engine to begin the long, slow, arduous process of shedding weight and returning land to stakeholders. Sensitively, making case-by-case decisions in the community interest, as determined with transparency.

    Or that’s just my opinion. Great interview!


    • Yes, indeed. Elsewhere, the Rev has noted, “The biggest slum landlord in the city of Pittsburgh is the city of Pittsburgh.” That slumming will continue unless we set up ways for this Act-47 disciplined City to responsibly divest itself of these properties to a publicly accountable institution with the legal powers to generate funds for such maintenance, partly through strategic sales of better holdings to support rehabilitation of blighted holdings. And a land bank would also be eligible for hefty-duty federal NSP/HOME funds, as long as holdings support affordable housing and community-accountable development.

      I’m still doing my homework on land bank financing and community reinvestment structures and will soon have more of substance to contribute on that point.


      • His concern is not actually rampant speculation.

        His concern is that this land represents the only equity stake the residents in some of the poorest neighborhoods have in the future redevelopment of said neighborhoods.

        The City either owns the land or has the legal power to seize the land.

        Agree with it or not, the only entity that can protect that equity stake is City Council, through the approval process.

        So whenever Reverend Burgess hears that we should hand the people’s equity stake, in its’ entirety, to a group of unelected, unaccountable group of appointees, he rightly recoils.

        No matter how many times people throw around the word “accountable” around, if I as a citizen in a vulnerable cannot fire or unelect a decision maker, accountability does not exist.


      • You as a citizen can unelect the Mayor and a portion of the Council who makes the appointments and set the policies, which must exist in harmony with City Planning and other agencies. You as a citizen (or as a Council office) can also organize to make very effective pleadings and recommendations at the Land Bank’s public meetings. This is not so different from anything that happens in the URA, the Housing Authority, or the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Democracy has never entailed legislators wielding individual veto power.

        Councilman Burgess could easily forward new bylaws to the Housing Authority requiring that City Council sign off on all its decisions, for example — on his theory that only City Council can protect public housing residents’ stake in their neighborhoods and homes — but it probably wouldn’t make for very good or timely decision making. Legislators have their own primary responsibilities to write laws, facilitate constituent services, and run political campaigns.

        Is it really accurate to say the land is the residents’ “equity stake”? If it was their land, they could do something on it or dispose of it as they chose. The whole point is that they DON’T have any access to that land. That’s what we’re trying to remedy.


      • CORRECTION: I asserted that a land bank would be able to apply for federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding. Thanks to Shawn Carter, Chief of Staff for Council member Rev. Ricky Burgess, for pointing out that the fourth year of NSP funding had not been approved by our Republican-dominated Congress.


  2. Bram,

    There you go again. The residents of Council District 9 cannot unelect a Mayor, or any of the other 8 members of Council. They can only unelect the member of Council that they can legally vote for. And on top of it, in the year that they go to the ballot to choose a member of Council, 4 other members of Council aren’t even on the ballot, so that portion of your argument is even fallacious in theory, let alone practice.

    And I am sure that the residents of the Hill District made very compelling arguments to the City’s Planning Commission in 1954. And in front of Council in 1955. But…. In 1955, ALL members of Council were elected, at-large, in a City whose politics were controlled unilaterally by Mayor David Lawrence.

    In fact, of all of the neighborhoods affected by Lawrence’s “urban growth agenda”, (South Side Flats, St. Clair, Arlington, Spring Hill-City View, Lower Hill District, Allegheny Center and East Liberty), only one was spared the wrecking ball: Highland Park. Why? Because Richard King Mellon’s uncle deeded to the City hundreds of acres of land in Highland Park to the City in exchange for building the Civic Arena somewhere else (read: the Lower Hill District).

    And City Council would LOVE to get the Authorities to, by resolution, bind those agencies to the rule of City Council. Find a Mayor willing to do it, and you’re on. Go ask Mayor Peduto to do it. He controls, utterly, these Authorities now, and I am only too certain that if he wanted that to happen, it would take only a month to get those changes in, and I bet that Council would applaud, unanimously, such a change.

    And, yes, Bram, it is entirely accurate to claim the land these residents live around as their “stake” in the future of their neighborhoods, unless we don’t care about ensuring that redevelopment and urban growth benefit them as opposed to displace them or otherwise harm them.

    And the landbank you’re defending isn’t designed, and does not wish to give the residents “access” to the land, rather, the proponents of the land bank, and that is what Councilmembers Burgess, Harris, Kail-Smith and Lavelle are trying to remedy.


    • Equity stake” has a specific meaning. If they had it, they would be able to sell it or do something else with it. They cannot, so it is not. Perhaps you mean sweat equity, or even more accurately blood / tears equity.

      Burgess proposes reforms all the time without waiting for a mayor — any mayor. He could have advocated making the Housing Authority subservient to City Council years ago, when he controlled the HACP board. Or he could do it now, to be consistent.

      You take us back 60 years ago, before the entirety of the Internet and all its attendant organizing and information-disseminating capabilities, before Watergate, and before we had the entire urban renewal experience. I had thought the problem back then was that business titans earned community support for all of their vast exploitative designs. In other words, we made mistakes about what is good planning — all of us. Now we have different experiences and we know better what to demand. “We”. Democratically and transparently — not paternalistically. Maybe occasionally a Council member should get outvoted, eh? We all have blind spots in our own prejudices about people, we can’t leave all such things up to lone individuals at informal back room visits.

      I’ve been to more debates for City Council seats than I care to recollect. Often the question is asked, “What is the job of a City Councilor?” They all say, we write the laws. They all say, we facilitate service requests. I’ve never heard one of them admit, we alone decide who gets what and what gets built in our districts. Probably because that’s an embarrassingly outmoded state of affairs, like Walking Around Money or no-bid contracts.

      Now that the legislation has been amended in adherence to stated community concerns, the remaining vociferous objections are based on a desire to keep our poorest neighborhoods utterly dependent on their individual Council reps for progress and sustenance, on a desire to pander to base and fundamentally unsustainable xenophobia, or on a desire to stop Gross or Peduto from notching a very noteworthy accomplishment. In varying degrees, of course. I’m no mind reader.


      • Trust me. Read “The Politics of Place” by Gregory J. Crowley.

        He is the Director (or President?) of Coro Pittsburgh.

        This isn’t about fiefdoms, or politics.

        This, for me, and dare I speak for the Rev, about protecting the residents in these neighborhoods.

        Nothing in the proposal you defend protects these residents. Nothing.

        I wish we were having a fulsome policy discussion along the lines of what Helen is talking about, vis-a-vis Neighborhood Stabilization Ptogram and CDBG and HOME funds and structural designs for affordable housing, but the only entitites even talking about that are community advocates, Helen, and Lavelle and Burgess, none of whom are sponsors or proponents of the proposal before City Council.

        Instead, you seem predisposed to a “See no evil, hear no evil” approach to your support of this effort despite decades of evidence which indicates the pitfalls of such an approach.

        There is nothing new about the agenda being pursued here. It is a 1950’s-style urban growth agenda masquerading as some new, progressive thing. But it is premised on the exact same datapoints: Underperforming real estate, a disproportionate number of vulnerable residents, mysterious corporate patrons (although in the modern day philanthropic interests have replaced the sheer raw corporate power of the captains ofnlocal industry), and local political power centralized in the hands of a few increasingly power elected officials who wield their power to build and maintain a Council majority.

        And if you would read the book instead of merely dismissing my criticisms out of a desire to avoid an objective discussion about the harms that could arise from this scenario, you too would see exactly what is on the horizon and precisely why more and more people are beginning to recoil at the thought of it.


      • I’ll read the book if you read the amendments which spell out who gets to be on the board, how they get there, and what they can or cannot do once on it, and the many places residents can take the eternally, inevitably, justly necessary measures to influence them.

        To say we should not act to democratically address “underperforming real estate” (crisis-level, world-historic lingering urban abandonment) because David Lawrence acted poorly is to beg the question of the whole discussion. Maybe the way Councilwoman Jones from poverty-ridden Council District 10 wants to do it is just as Davidy Lawrencey? But how could we stop her? Support from developers buys a lot of good campaigners.

        By all means, strengthen the bill with further DEMOCRATIC AND TRANSPARENT safeguards, but there is a difference between fixing a bill and attempting to assassinate it.

        Councilmanic prerogative, AKA one-man veto power: it belongs in a museum!


  3. Yes.

    We can put it right next to the exhibit on the Lower Hill District at the Heinz History Center.

    Democracy denotes an express relationship to entitites who can be voted out.

    Like I said, Helen, and I meant it in all seriousness, I would much rather be dialoguing with you over the best way(s) to program in affordable housing and the like, but when there are two sides to a debate and one side refuses to so much as entertain that discussion, that is difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish.

    Especially when those who refuse to engage the discussion constitute the voting majority of City Council.

    Change that, challenge that, get us past that and I promise you that the rest of this will become much easier.


    • Happy to entertain a discussion on affordable housing. My impression is that the Center for Community Progress and the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance, who advocate for properly independent public land banks, hold that central to their missions.

      What sorts of suggestions do you have for making certain the land bank aids the push for affordable housing while staying financially sustainable?


    • @Shawn

      You write, “one side refuses to so much as entertain that discussion.”

      The problem is, it’s clear we’ve been having very different conversations – in my discussions with Deb Gross staff, Neighborhood Stabilization Program grants and the requirements in support of affordable housing were not a matter of debate, they were a decided “of course, yes, receiving more of that prioritized funding is one of the biggest pluses of what a land bank makes possible. Yes, NSP/HOME/CDBG funding would help sustain a land bank so we don’t have to rely on city revenue. Yes, a land bank would be eligible for many such funds when the City is currently not.”

      Having federal funding streams that demand public accountability and investment in affordable housing would be a very good thing for the communities that have already been speculated, foreclosed, and neglected into ruin. The land bank law would allow community-accountable mechanisms to efficiently take back such blighted property from absentee slum landlords, corporations, Wells Fargo, and all their extractive ilk. Time to end the current nightmare of title-tangle.


      • CORRECTION: I asserted that a land bank would be able to apply for federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding. Thanks to Shawn Carter, Chief of Staff for Council member Rev. Ricky Burgess, for pointing out that the fourth year of NSP funding had not been approved by our Republican-dominated Congress.


  4. Helen–

    The real problem is that the sponsors of the landbank continue to be less than honest about the landbank, how it will operate, and where it will generate its primary source(s) of funds from.

    It is equally clear that the sponsors must believe, inherently, that to disclose these facts would imperil the prospects of the legislation’s passage.

    On a different note, the comparisons to “best practices” in other cities around the nation where landbanks have been established conveniently leave out some critically important facts.

    Every community resident asked their feelings about landbank and virtually every community organization is diametrically opposed to this landbank possessing the power to seize owner-occupied properties, yet the sponsors appear vehemently determined to give that power to the landbank anyway.

    Perhaps we should all do the public a service and demand to know why that is.

    Because it is painfully clear that the sponsors are depending on the ignorance of both the public at large AND many of their own supporters to avoid having a real policy discussion about landbanks, which would have been deemed unacceptable to you just one year ago.

    The secrecy with which this legislation was written and the sheer tonedeafness involved would have provoked you to rattle the cages.

    And, so, it is inherent upon all of us to demand the truth. And I am here to tell you that you have not heard it yet.


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