Workshop provides residents with tools to fight blight
March 12, 2012 8:00 AM
Court Gould, Sustainable Pittsburgh executive director
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Until a year ago, the so-called toolbox for fighting blight had a few implements for prying but nothing very sharp. Then Act 90 came along.
The Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act is a hammer and power saw combination for Pennsylvania cities and towns to extradite out-of-state property owners, attach their private assets to pay unpaid fines and deny them permits based on past abuses.
Two hundred people gathered Thursday at the Sheraton Station Square to find out how they can use it to take on what Sustainable Pittsburgh's executive director Court Gould called "a really gnarly challenge. Pockets of pernicious decline are ubiquitous throughout the region and today's capacity crowd tells us just how pervasive it is."
The "New Tools to Fight Blight" conference was an introduction to a series of three workshops in April and May that will cover the administrative, financial and legal aspects of using Act 90 effectively.
Many communities face barriers in using the new tools, from lack of capacity to budget constraints, said Susan Hockenberry, executive director of the Local Government Academy. "The educational campaign is meant to empower people to know the right moves to make."
The training is sponsored by the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, Sustainable Pittsburgh and the Local Government Academy. For program details and information about registration and program fees, call 412-586-5659 or visit www.localgovernmentacademy.org.
Attorneys and municipal solicitors will be trained separately in May and June.
Act 90 is the latest of legislative measures to fight blight and the most empowering, said Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. "These new tools shift the paradigm" from a complaint-driven process to "a progressive approach that enables municipalities to do progressive discipline" of property owners who thumb their noses at their responsibilities and municipal codes.
District Judge Richard King told the crowd that if enough violations pile up against a property owner, "we can entertain the district attorney to prosecute for criminal offenses. When the right case comes along -- and it will -- it will be a wake-up call to a lot of property owners who treat code violations as if they were parking tickets."
Irene McLaughlin, a former Housing Court judge who now represents the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, will be leading one of the training sessions.
She said Act 90 "has ushered in a new era" in part by giving authorities the right to deny an applicant a zoning or building permit "if there are outstanding taxes or code violations, and if there are, there is a system where the public can see the adjudications by magisterial district judges and the parcel ID numbers to be entered into the docket system."
Along with three parts of Act 90, the crime of housing code avoidance, an act passed in 1998, is being polished off, too.
"To my knowledge, it hasn't been used," she said. "So this allows a summary level violation to be kicked up to a misdemeanor charge."
In Allentown, Mayor Ed Pawlowski has taken some bold measures that he described at the conference. In a city where housing stock is almost half rental, he said, officials require inspections of all rental properties before they are sold, "a means of building a property inventory," he said.
Allentown licenses landlords, has a blighted property review board and provides low-interest loans to owners to bring properties up to code.
The landlord license fee is $75 per unit. Properties that are deemed unfit for human habitation are tagged and landlords are required to move tenants within 48 hours "to take rental incentive away," he said.
Allentown also has a "Landlord Hall of Shame," he said. "I post billboards with pictures of the owner's nice, suburban home, name and cell phone number so people can let him know how much they appreciate his disregard of their neighborhood. These people leave dying carcasses of houses to rot, and I am tired of it."
Asked if the city has been sued, he said it has and has won every case. "I say, 'Go ahead, sue us.' What the hell do I care? If you're raping our city, I'm going to be after you."
In Philadelphia, where you need a license to own a vacant property, the Department of Licenses & Inspections drew up an inventory of 25,000 blighted properties and assembled a team of recent law school graduates to find the owners.
Maura Kennedy, the department's director of strategic initiatives, said one measure was to "make it expensive to own blight" by fining owners $300 a day for improperly covered windows and doors. If the fine goes unpaid, she said, "we can attach that fine to the person and target their home, their car and their credit score."
Previous laws have granted municipalities the right to garner rents from abusive landlords and to take conservatorship of properties.
The conservatorship law passed three years ago, allowing the neighbor of a slumlord to petition the courts to appoint a conservator to fix up the property or have it demolished. In many cases, the responsible owners can't be found or are willfully unresponsive or dead, Ms. Hersh said.
The depth and breadth of blight and prevailing rights of property owners have made the fight all uphill. And although Act 90 promises more effective help, it won't grease the wheels.
As always, Ms. Hersh said, "There is due process that is extensive and laborious. Nothing happens quickly regarding private property. But there is an end game now."