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 Police Chaplain John Welch: “The streets of Homewood or the back roads of Iraq?”

Nate Harper and Police Chaplain John Welch

Former Police Chief Nate Harper and Police Chaplain John Welch in 2011

As the news of the sentencing of former Police Chief Nathaniel Harper has broken across the city of Pittsburgh, we might do well to consider the interlocking networks of irresponsibility and mismanagement and corruption that a far larger, long-standing system made possible.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Police Chaplain John Welch about his own concerns and perceptions of the drastic reforms in policing that need to be made. He said, “Nate Harper had a strong heart for the community.” Our former Chief certainly seems to have betrayed his own good intentions. Although he’s done much good for the community, the temptations to personal profit and neglect enabled by our current policing systems seemed to have proved stronger than his heart.

But is it constructive that it is mainly Harper that is currently bearing the fullest brunt of formal legal consequences, even as the larger problems in our policing system continue with sometimes grievous impact on our most vulnerable communities, on men and women and children that are too often treated as though they were insurgents rather than Pittsburghers?

A couple of days ago on Essential Pittsburgh our new Mayor Bill Peduto laid out his intentions for Public Safety reforms, noting that healing the breakdown in police-community relations must be a central priority of both Public Safety Director and a new Police Chief. As both Law Professor David Harris and Police Detective Sheldon Williams underlined in earlier conversations, repairing that long-time breach means deep systemic and cultural change within the Police Bureau, not just a change in Chiefs. While John Welch asserts that the Mayor must take a crucial leadership role, he also argues that no one man or woman or Mayor can make these changes alone. Welch calls us all to account to put pressure on both the Mayor and all our elected leaders who must exercise checks and balances on police power.

Welch notes the negative impacts when the Fraternal Order of Police resists such oversight and accountability, with special note of the cases of Dennis Henderson and Jordan Miles. And he emphasizes that we must address the far larger networks of racism, inequitable power, exploitative privilege, and poverty that literally weave matters of life and death every single day in Pittsburgh.

“I actually think that the word democracy is evaporating from our lexicon,” Welch said, “… Money is buying Washington, it’s buying Harrisburg, it’s buying Grant St…” The only antidote, he says, is for all of us to take responsibility.

Audio of conversation with Welch: 24 minutes