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How the Tri-COG Land Bank is Transforming Vacant Properties in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

April 6, 2023

Tri-COG Land Bank Impact

By Liz Kozub, Associate Director, National Technical Assistance

I got my start in transforming vacant properties in 2012 as an intern for the City of East McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a dense community of just over 2,000 residents with tremendous community pride. I went house-to-house with a clipboard documenting the conditions of vacant properties that dotted its beautiful brick streets. Ideally, families would once more be able to call these derelict properties home—but we were unsure exactly how to make that happen. That same summer, the state legislature—with the support of the Center for Community Progress—was contemplating a new tool for Pennsylvania communities to address vacant properties: a “land bank.” Five years later, I was working alongside a dedicated, innovative team on the establishment of the Tri-COG Land Bank, a newly formed land bank charged with helping communities like East McKeesport turn vacant spaces into vibrant places once more.

What is a Land Bank?

A land bank is a public entity with unique governmental powers that is solely focused on getting problem properties back to productive use according to local community goals. They are created pursuant to state-enabling legislation which gives them unique powers like the ability to cost-effectively acquire tax-foreclosed properties, clear title, hold property tax-exempt, sell properties flexibly, and generate revenue.

The Story of the Tri-COG Land Bank

The story of the Tri-COG Land Bank (TCLB) is one of tenacity and willingness to lead on the issues of vacancy and abandonment when no one else would.  (A note to readers: I left the TCLB to join Community Progress just as the land bank started acquiring its first properties. So, while I may be a biased, I cannot take credit for the incredible achievements you’ll read about below.) TCLB is a multi-municipal land bank that works in Allegheny County, outside Pittsburgh. It got its start from two Council of Governments (COGs): the Steel Rivers COG and Turtle Creek Valley COG. Despite their limited capacity and resources, the COGs relentlessly advocated for investment to address the significant amount of vacant and abandoned properties harming their communities, culminating in the creation of the TCLB in 2017. Since then, TCLB has:

  • Recruited 38 members (28 municipalities, 9 school districts, and Allegheny County), and growing.
  • Secured annual funding from all members, using a formula based on the amount of delinquent taxes received by each member. The first and only of its kind (to our knowledge) that has school districts as paying members.
  • Strategically acquired over 100 properties and sold over 40 properties, the majority of which created new homeownership opportunities.
  • Established, in partnership with five other regional entities focused on community revitalization, the Equitable Communities Collaborative, to develop a more intentional, strategic, and comprehensive community development service delivery model.

Community Progress has supported TCLB from the land bank’s inception and was recently engaged to lead the development of its 2023-27 Strategic Plan. Through this process, we helped TCLB identify five key priorities for the next five years that are emblematic of where the national field of land banking is moving.

If you’re a land bank, or work closely with one, take inspiration from these strategic priorities as you contemplate what growth looks like for your organization.

Before and after photos of a Tri-COG land bank property that was remodeled by its buyer. (Image Courtesy of the Tri-COG Land Bank)

Priority 1: Increase Homeownership Opportunities Through Home Rehabilitation

Creating opportunities for homeownership, specifically for low-income communities and communities of color, is a top priority for land banks across the country. TCLB facilitates homeownership through programs like owner-occupant “first look” opportunities, education on FHA’s 203K financing for purchasing and repairs, and by prioritizing homeownership when deciding how to sell a property. But access to quality affordable homes can be a challenge due to extreme neighborhood disinvestment, lack of resources and expertise among individual buyers to fix up vacant properties, and few private or nonprofit housing developers. In the next five years, TCLB will explore opportunities to ramp up TCLB-led repairs to make homeownership more accessible for the residents they serve.

Priority 2: Facilitate Community Resiliency Through Vacant Land Reclamation

Vacant land (i.e., land without structures or improvements) is not just a challenge for TCLB—nationally, vacant land makes up 87 percent of land banks’ inventory. TCLB will expand partnerships and programs to foster more opportunities for residents to own vacant lots through mow-to-own programs, placemaking, and partnerships with municipal members. They will also partner with regional leaders in conservancy and stormwater management to implement environmental or ecological solutions on vacant land.

Priority 3: Update Policies and Practices to Facilitate Equitable Outcomes

Land banks across the country are being more intentional in their practices, programs, and leadership to address the inequities of the past and ensure their work advances racial equity and achieve equitable outcomes. As demonstrated in the “Community Disparities for Allegheny County” map, communities in the TCLB footprint have a high concertation of variables that lead to community instability, such as high vacancy rates, high populations living in poverty, properties in poor physical condition, and low market values. The factors are also prevalent in communities with high Black populations. TCLB will ensure their limited resources benefit people who have experienced harm from a history of disinvestment, including providing preference for legacy residents when making disposition decisions.

Community Disparities for Allegheny County (Tri-COG Land Bank Strategic Plan 2023-27)

Priority 4: Expand Education and Engagement with Members, Residents, and Other Stakeholders

One of the foundational purposes of a land bank is to return properties to productive use according to community goals. To fulfill this purpose, TCLB will continue to expand their engagement activities and program portfolio to develop deeper relationships with their members and residents, through hiring additional staff, engaging more directly with its members, and being a resource to residents in the communities they serve.

Priority 5: Elevate Regional Goals to Affect Policy Change

TCLB is a trusted voice and relentless advocate for policy changes and resources that can address property vacancy, abandonment, and community disinvestment. Many land banks take on the responsibility of being educator, convener, and planner. TCLB will leverage their expertise in data and vacant property mitigation, their network of partners, and their deep relationships with the communities they serve to address the high rates of vacancy and abandonment in the region by advocating to repair harms caused by disinvestment.

Community Progress is looking forward to watching TCLB expand their programming and deepen their impact. And hopefully, your community can also see that no challenge is insurmountable.

Is your community struggling with vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties? We can help! Contact us at [email protected] to learn about how our team of legal, strategic, and policy experts can help you transform the systems and policies that perpetuate problem properties, including housing and building code enforcement, delinquent property tax foreclosure enforcement reform, vacant land stewardship, land banking, and more ,to address the full cycle of property revitalization. Click here to learn more about our services and approach.

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