The Pittsburgh Land Bank failure

The Pittsburgh Land Bank failure

It was on June 27, 1854, that U.S. Rep. Gerrit Smith offered this simple truth in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives:

“(G)overnment is for the use of the people, and not the people for the use of the government.”

Perhaps Greg Miller will make that his guiding principle as he takes over the broken mess that is the Pittsburgh Land Bank.

Miller comes to Pittsburgh from New York City where he was a senior urban designer for the Big Apple’s planning department. He inherits an operation that is in disarray. And that’s being kind.

As the Post-Gazette reported recently:

“Citing the success of similar programs in other cities, the agency was emboldened under a new state law to take ownership of abandoned homes in areas that have been losing residents for generations.

“Since its creation, the agency has spent hundreds of thousands on consultants, lawyers and experts to draw up plans to make it one of the most successful programs of its kind in Pennsylvania.

“’This Land Bank will become an important and powerful tool in our efforts to empower residents to take back control of their neighborhoods,’ said Mayor Bill Peduto, who championed the legislation in 2014.

“But after all the meetings and spending, this is what taxpayers got for their money: a single, empty lot in an area long vexed by blight and crime.

“Ultimately, the program created to help turn around the burgeoning problem of urban blight failed at every level, from the lack of money to buy the properties, to the inability of the land bank to strike agreements with other public agencies, to a critical lack of leadership, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation found.”

In other words, the Pittsburgh Land Bank became the latest example of government “riding to the rescue” only to make worse what it said it would make better.

So much for “efforts to empower residents to take back control of their neighborhoods,” right?

Oh, and that one empty lot “success” story? There remains a more than $500 tax lien on it.

And, oh, there appears to have been no accurate accounting of how a whole lot of money has been spent.

Sound public policy demands not merely a clear, long-term goal but an immediate operational plan. While the Pittsburgh Land Bank had a vision, it never had the chops to even begin reaching that goal.

Whether Greg Miller can turn it around remains to be seen. But his first task is to come clean about past failures and then to offer a transparent operational plan that assures all involved that seven years of abject failures will not turn into seven more or longer.

Unchanged, Ronald Reagan’s famous quip about government dysfunction — “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help” – will be affirmed.

Yet again.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).