Last updated: February 19. 2013 4:50PM - 403 Views

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PITTSBURGH — A new Pennsylvania law allows local governments to take control of blighted properties and cancel tax liens and bank foreclosures so the land can be sold to responsible owners or developers willing to improve hard-luck neighborhoods.

Gov. Tom Corbett late last month signed the Land Bank Act to streamline the cumbersome process of returning delinquent properties to tax rolls in towns struggling to boost their tax bases.

More than 300,000 vacant properties are scattered across the state, including about 40,000 in Philadelphia and 20,000 in Pittsburgh, where more than half are tax-delinquent. A 2010 report by the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations said the properties cost taxpayers an estimated $20 million a year.

This could really help us, said Dennis Davin, director of the Allegheny County Economic Redevelopment Department. We have a vacant property program, where we help municipalities redevelop vacant land when they ask, but it's a very long process. This could not only shorten the process but reduce the cost of it.

Davin said the county budgets about $100,000 a year to address legal obstacles of clearing tax liens and other claims against properties and absentee owners, who sometimes are difficult to find. Such challenges can take years to untangle, frustrating neighbors and redevelopment nonprofits eager to make change.

A key to attracting developers to once-blighted land is packaging parcels in a land bank into a tract large enough to host homes or businesses, Davin said.

Liz Hersh, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, said the law allows municipalities to designate a land banking authority that can repurpose vacant, delinquent parcels rather than leaving that to sheriff's offices and redevelopment authorities.

It also updates antiquated laws that can create a legal labyrinth for municipalities trying to improve blighted areas.

Our tax sale laws were written in 1923, all five of them, and Pennsylvania is a really different place today, Hersh said. Back then, it was still growing with new industries, and the idea then that someone would walk away from their property was unthinkable.

Now it happens particularly in urban cores, where absentee landlords and poverty are more common.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl pushed for the law's approval.

In a speech to the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities, Ravenstahl said: We determined that if we are going to build off of the gains we've made in turning our blighted properties into community assets, we must be able to repurpose vacant, abandoned and foreclosed properties through the use of land banks.

Municipalities that want to create an independent authority to handle land banks must have a population of at least 10,000, under the new law.

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