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McKeesport, land bank officials hopeful for appropriations boost; measure must pass U.S. House
An appropriations bill passed by the U.S. Senate last week could include a boost — valued at $1.7 million — to plans by the city and a local land bank to develop new affordable housing in McKeesport.
Senators by an 82-15 vote passed legislation funding military construction, veterans affairs, transportation, housing and urban development, agriculture, rural development and the Food & Drug Administration.
The three bills are the first bipartisan appropriations bills to pass so far in 2023 in either house of the U.S. Congress.
Included is $1.7 million for a program to recover seven abandoned lots in McKeesport and construct four new houses, said U.S. Sen. John Fetterman.
“This funding is a good start to get this community what it needs and deserves — but it can't be the end of our work here,” Fetterman said in a prepared statement. “I will never stop fighting for federal investment in McKeesport, and communities all across the commonwealth.”
The bills must still be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives.
The housing development program — if funded — would be overseen by a coalition that includes the city, the Tri-COG Land Bank and City of Bridges Community Land Trust.
Tri-COG Land Bank was founded in 2017 by Turtle Creek Valley Council of Governments and Steel Rivers Council of Governments.
According to the U.S. Census, McKeesport has some of the oldest housing stock in the region. Almost 74 percent of all of the housing in the city was built before 1950, compared to 56 percent across all of Allegheny County and 47 percent across Pennsylvania.
Over the past decade, McKeesport has torn down more than 500 abandoned houses, with another 200 under contract for demolition under the city’s “McKeesport Rising” initiative.
Mayor Michael Cherepko said the funding included by Fetterman would allow the city and partner agencies to move into a new phase that includes construction, rather than just demolition.
“All too often we only think about eliminating eyesores from our neighborhoods when we are demolishing abandoned homes,” he said. “We have to focus on what comes next. When we tear down a vacant structure, we are creating an opportunity for new development.”
If the appropriations bill makes it through the House, Tri-COG Land Bank would partner with the Pittsburgh-based City of Bridges Community Land Trust to reuse seven plots of land to build new owner-occupied homes that would be designed to stay affordable.
The homes also would be designed to be energy-efficient, said An Lewis, executive director of the Steel Rivers COG and the Tri-COG Land Bank.
“This project is a prime example of the Equitable Communities Collaborative approach, which asserts that community revitalization requires a coordinated approach among community organizations,” she said. “We are so grateful to our federal partners for bringing these resources to our community.”
A land-bank is a public not-for-profit entity that acquires vacant and abandoned properties and attempts to find new owners for them. According to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, there are more than 250 land banks operating across the country, mostly in cities with a large percentage of blighted properties.
The Tri-COG land bank was created in 2017 to address the problem of vacant and abandoned properties in the Mon Valley and east suburbs of Pittsburgh.
Lewis said the Tri-COG Land Bank sought the federal funding because McKeesport faces interlocking problems of blight, poverty and environmental injustice.
Several years ago, Pittsburgh-based ACTION-Housing remediated vacant lots near Twin Rivers Elementary School and successfully erected a new single-family home. Cherepko said the city would welcome similar new development.
Besides providing new housing, Lewis said the four new homes would return seven parcels to the tax rolls, generating income for the city, school district, and county.
Additionally, she said, the new homeowners would build equity through purchasing property.
The appropriations bills championed by Fetterman will still need to pass a badly divided U.S. House of Representatives, which has struggled in recent months to elect a speaker of the house after the resignation of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California.
A Fetterman spokesperson noted the contrast between the bipartisan vote in the Senate and the challenges facing the House of Representatives.
While the appropriations bills approved by the Senate had widespread support from both Republicans and Democrats, the House has been voting on appropriations bills that include provisions that Democrats consider “poison-pills” — such as deep cuts to social programs or policies that target civil-rights protections for minority groups and roll back environmental and labor regulations.
Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate have argued that such provisions lack support among both Republican and Democratic senators, and would not be signed into law by President Biden.
Lawmakers have until Nov. 17 to pass a dozen appropriations bills and deliver them to a joint Senate-House conference committee for final negotiations. If the appropriations bills are not approved, both houses would need to pass a continuing resolution to fund the federal government to avert a shut-down.
Originally published November 07, 2023.