Council rethinks land banking

Neighbors’ complaints at a recent City Council meeting about a problem house on Beech Avenue could lead the city Redevelopment Authority to reconsider land banking – after the authority

set aside the idea less than a year ago.

Foreclosed upon in January, the vacant house on the 400 block has attracted mice and rats and features garbage on the back porch, high weeds in the backyard and a garage that has been broken into, according to Tina Patterson – who worries her house next door would catch fire if the place burned.

In keeping with a promise made to Patterson by Interim City Manager Peter Marshall, officials have looked at the situation and discovered the house is not a candidate for demolition, said city Planning Director Lee Slusser, after a Redevelopment Authority meeting at which new authority member and city mayor Matt Pacifico resurrected the land banking idea.

The Beech Avenue house may be the kind of house that land banking could help restore to the tax rolls, Slusser said afterward.

The city codes office has inspected the property and found violations, but the house is structurally sound and far from the kind of building that ends up on the city’s blighted property program for removal, according to Slusser.

The authority looked at land banking in 2013, as requested in the city’s Act 47 distressed municipalities recovery plan, and dropped the idea of adoption after finding that land banking didn’t seem to give Altoona a definitive edge in fighting blight – beyond the tools the city already possessed.

The Redevelopment Authority can make “friendly” efforts to acquire property without land banking help, Slusser said Friday.

Still, a land bank created by the city – it would need concurrence from Blair County and the Altoona Area School District, the other taxing bodies – might have an advantage in its ability to take half the taxes collected on properties acquired by a new owner for five years, Slusser said.

That money could give it the funds to go after other problem properties, Slusser said.

Land banks can also intervene in the frequently messy tax sale process conducted by the county – beginning with upset sale, where liens remain, through judicial sale, where most are wiped out, to the county “repository,” where any offers are entertained. That process has sometimes resulted in buyers acquiring blighted properties cheaply, especially after liens are wiped out, then holding them without making improvements, or flipping them for a profit to some other buyer who also fails to make improvements, helping to perpetuate blight and bedevil neighbors.

The city tried with some success to forestall the flippers, even buying up worrisome properties at tax sales.

Until about 2009, the authority routinely bought such properties, then demolished the buildings on them through a cumbersome, laborious, expensive process, using shares of its annual federal Community Development Block Grant entitlement.

In 2009, however, the city changed its strategy, forgoing acquisition in favor of invoking the property maintenance code to demolish the buildings, a power conferred on municipalities to preserve the health, safety and welfare of neighborhoods.

That not only proved quicker and cheaper, but relieved the city of the responsibility of maintaining the resultant vacant lots, which had become a problem, because new federal rules prohibited the perpetual use of the CDBG demolition money to maintain them.

But that still left potentially viable properties like the one on Beech Avenue too good to demolish, but with problems nonetheless, Slusser said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.