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.

 CORRECTION TO MISINFORMATION IN COMMENTS BELOW:

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.

Conversation with Marimba Milliones: Land bank or land grab?

Marimba Milliones: CEO and President of the Hill Community Development Corporation, board member of the Pittsburgh Reinvestment Group

Marimba Milliones: CEO and President of the Hill Community Development Corporation, board member of the Pittsburgh Reinvestment Group

For residents of the Hill District who have experienced top-down urban redevelopment unfold the will of the powerful and wealthy with the help of City government, who have watched the destructive impacts of redlining in their own neighborhoods, who have watched bulldozers legally roll over their own homes, churches, and businesses,  who have watched their children migrate to the suburbs, displaced by profitable Penguin parking lots and vacant properties neglected by big banks and speculators – for those who have called the Hill their home over the past decades, such personal histories inevitably set the stage for crucial questions about the potential powers of a land bank.

As Hill CDC President and CEO who now helps manage development in the Hill District neighborhoods where she was raised, as daughter of long-time Hill District activist and leader Jake Milliones, as articulate leader who has worked for years to help develop the Hill District Master Plan with many other allies and antagonists, Marimba Milliones raises such tough and crucial questions in this conversation. She also makes suggestions for amendments to the land bank legislation introduced by City Council Member Deb Gross that might assure Hill District leaders, community groups and residents that they will co-author the script for their own community-directed re-development: Audio: 23 minutes

Who will own the homes in Homewood?

Rev John WelchDuring our longer conversation about public safety and policing, Reverend John Welch, former President of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network and current police chaplain, spoke briefly about the changes he has seen in Homewood since his childhood, and his concerns about the future of his neighborhood as it might be affected by proposed land bank legislation – for better or for worse. I’ve excerpted that commentary here:

Audio  (three minutes)

Conversation with Deb Gross: Land bank as tool for community empowerment?

Deb Gross imageI’ve been recording conversations about the potential impacts of land bank legislation introduced by District 7 City Council member, Deb Gross. Here are her own hopes for how the legislation might enable the revitalization of communities throughout Pittsburgh as blighted and abandoned properties might be brought back into circulation. She also responds to widespread concerns and to thoughtful recommendations for amendments from community groups and residents of the neighborhoods that would be most affected by the operations of a land bank.

Audio of conversation on 02/10/14. (20 minutes)

I’m currently editing recorded conversations with Council Member Ricky Burgess of District 9, with Marimba Milliones, CEO of the Hill District CDC, and with Rev. John Welch, former President of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network and police chaplain. All three have been working for many years to address the impacts of blight and  abandonment with their neighbors and allies in their home communities – and the long histories of top-down planning and gentrification that many fear may replay if safeguards for community inclusion and empowerment are not codified in the legislation.

There will be a public hearing on the land bank legislation this coming Thursday, February 20th, starting at 6pm in City Council Chambers. You can call 412-255-2138 to sign up for three minutes of speaking time.