Tiny Houses

20 June 2014

On April 22, 1889, Oklahoma City exploded (literally) onto the map. Where the city now sits was once designated as “unassigned lands.” The federal government held an event known as a “Land Run.” Homesteaders lined up along an imaginary line, a gun was fired, and citizens raced across the countryside. Wherever they drove their stake into the ground, became their new home. As Mick Cornett, the city’s current mayor, explained in his 2013 TED talk, by the end of the day, Oklahoma City’s population had gone from zero to 10,000. If only land were so easy to acquire these days…

Today, Pittsburgh is finally on the rebound after decades of economic decline and population loss. Nearly half of the city’s population fled over the last thirty or forty years, leaving behind a large amount of underutilized land and vacant lots. Native Pittsburghers who left are coming back and outsiders who never lived here are moving to the city as well. Our economy, once firmly tied to the steel industry, is now based in “eds and meds”, thanks to our world-class universities and hospitals. Pittsburgh is also gaining a reputation as an innovative, nimble, and entrepreneurial tech hub. But to those moving here who wish to revitalize unused, forgotten land, the process of procuring land is anything but innovative or nimble. And that’s a shame, because a neighborhood like Garfield, with its abundance of vacant lots and dilapidated structures, is a wellspring of potential.

This blog isn’t just about tiny houses, it’s for anyone who’s interested in moving to this hidden gem of a neighborhood. Garfield is the next hot topic in city’s East End renaissance, and real estate here is starting to heat up. We talked with Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation’s deputy director, Aggie Brose, to discuss the current laborious process of acquiring land, as well as a new streamlined acquisition process that is in city council’s legislative pipeline. We promise it doesn’t involve a gun and foot race like it did in 1889.

(In this post, instead of showing you boring images of tax forms and deeds, we wanted to feature some of the murals you can find in Garfield. This is by street artist, Shepard Fairey, and can be found at 5243 Penn Avenue. For more murals in Garfield and throughout Pittsburgh, visit pghmurals.com.)

So let’s say you’ve found a (vacant) parcel of land you’re interested in building on. The first thing to do is contact the real estate division within the Pittsburgh Department of Finance.  They determine whether that land is owned by the City, or owned by a private owner who is tax delinquent. Once that determination is made, you fill out a “Request of Purchase” form from the real estate division.  If you already own other property in the city, you have to be up to date on all taxes and utilities and be in good standing with stuff like city parking tickets in order to purchase land.

If you’re all good, then the ball is back in the City’s court. If the City owns the property and there aren’t any liens against it, then the process moves relatively quickly and in a few weeks, you’ll be the owner. However, it doesn’t usually go so smoothly. If the city owns the property and there are liens on it, it could take up to fifteen weeks to clear the title (of the liens) and transfer the deed to you.

(“Davu Ayomi”, by Tarish Pipkins at 5424 Penn Avenue.)

But the really big headache occurs when the property is not owned by the City. If the property is vacant and tax delinquent, the City must notify any owners on the deed, who very well could be deceased. (Another complication is that if an owner declared bankruptcy, the property may already be a part of a sheriff’s sale.) But let’s say an owner never comes forward during this period of time to claim the property. The process of beginning to transfer the deed to you begins. But even after this transition has begun, the previous owner can still come forward during one last redemption period to claim the property. However, s/he must pay any and all taxes, fines and liens in full in order to keep the property. Only after this redemption period has ended and no one has stepped forward to claim the property, does the City proceed to take it into their possession and sell it to you. This process can take anywhere from 12-18 months. Quite the buzzkill for an excited new resident looking to move into and improve a neighborhood.

However, if you hang in there, you can get land at bargain prices. And that’s pretty cool, because Pittsburgh was recently ranked the world’s fifth best market for long-term real estate investment by a UK firm. For more info on purchasing vacant land from the City of Pittsburgh, here’s a PDF regarding auction sales and the “Make Us an Offer”program from the real estate division’s web page. Lastly, here’s some more helpful info from the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

(Artist and title unknown. 5020 Penn Ave.)

This inert process of transferring property into the right hands is not a problem unique to Pittsburgh. An abundance of trash strewn, overgrown vacant lots with the corresponding red tape to get them flipped quickly is a problem many older Rust Belt cities (Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, etc.) face. But some cities have become created policy vehicles known as “land banks.” While the specifics differ from city to city, land banks, generally speaking, are organizations that inventory, manage and market vacant properties, making it faster and much easier for a buyer to purchase a vacant property. Whereas the real estate division is largely reactive, fielding inquiries as they come in, a land bank is proactive. By preemptively investigating whether there is a legitimate deed holder, cleaning up properties, fixing code violations, demolishing hazardous structures, gathering info on the properties into a database and then actively marketing them to potential buyers, a land bank removes much of the headaches and heart burn for individual buyers. Flint, Michigan and Youngstown, Ohio are both successful models already underway and Pittsburgh’s big brother, Philadelphia, just became the largest city to create a land bank when it did so late last year.

City council voted 8-1 in favor of implementing a Pittsburgh land bank and it has the support of the new mayor, Bill Peduto. It’s going to take some time to get it off the ground, funding sources have yet to be determined and adequate manpower is a must if a land bank is to be successful. Despite these challenges, the decision to move forward with the land bank in Pittsburgh will allow us, as Ms Brose wrote in a recent Post Gazette op-ed, “[to view] empty lots and houses, as opportunities, and not barriers, to revitalization.”

(Dubbed “Garfield Gator” by pghmurals.com. Artist unknown. 408 N. Pacific Avenue.)

Here’s the City’s website concerning the ongoing process of creating the land bank, including a great FAQ section. In the meantime, if you want to buy a piece of land, buying one that is already on the market is definitely the faster way to go.


  1. Claude LaVallee said on

    Thank you so much for this post. For me, the biggest barrier to building my own small house has always been land, and the resources/knowledge necessary to acquiring it.
    I’d love to attend a workshop/series of workshops demystifying this process and making it accessible to more people who, like me, have never owned property and just assume owning is out of our reach. Perhaps a prospective-owner assistance program could also be available (or does such a thing already exist? Maybe via the library?…).
    (I was shocked, by the way, to see that you were able to put a down payment of only $250 on the property for your tiny house project! Is that because yours is part of a special community program?)

  2. Thank you for this, it’s so helpful for people looking to purchase vacant property in Pittsburgh.

    You mentioned that the faster way to buy a piece of land is to buy one already “on the market”. By that do you mean going through the process outlined here starting with the Real Estate Division in the Pittsburgh Dept. of Finance? Or do you mean traditional real estate search methods like the classifieds and real estate sites like Zillow?
    Thanks again!

  3. admin said on

    We mean buy one that is for sale now, not one that has been abandoned.

  4. Ron Martin said on

    I’m not seeing any vacant municipal land for sale right now. What’s happening with the Pittsburgh Land Bank idea?

  5. I’m not an expert on this, but I do believe it is proceeding with the hope of implementation sometime next year.

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