Wilmerding joins effort to allow vacant lots to be bought

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Residents and businesses in Wilmerding can now participate in an Allegheny County program to purchase vacant and blighted properties at discounted rates.

The borough was approved for the program at last week’s Allegheny County Redevelopment Authority meeting and joins 44 other municipalities that participate in the 5-year-old program.

Some residents might want to buy an adjacent property for a play area for their children, off-street parking or a garden. Others may have bigger goals: to fix up an abandoned structure, expand a business or build a house.

Sandy Smith, a Wilmerding council member, brought the program to the council’s attention. She hopes it will help rejuvenate the small borough located on the southern border of Monroeville. Council unanimously agreed to join the county program this spring.

Borough secretary Joe Hartzell said officials have been trying to demolish at least one dilapidated building or house a year.

According to the 2010 Census, Wilmerding Borough has 2,190 residents living in approximately 1,000 households.

Under the county Vacant Property Recovery Program, delinquent taxes owed on the property are forgiven. So the buyer pays the appraised value of the property, and the county will pay for most of the legal and processing fees for the purchase.

Depending on the community, a vacant 2,700-square-foot lot, for instance, might only cost $1,000.

The purchaser must submit a reuse plan to the borough for approval to make sure it complies with any comprehensive or zoning plans.

Buyers must be current on all property taxes, sewage, refuse and water bills, and they must be in compliance with all codes in their municipality. There are no income limits for buyers.

Ms. Smith said, “We’ve demolished some houses with the help of the Council of Governments, so we’re hoping some homeowners may want to purchase these lots, as side lots or maybe for off-street parking.”

“What often happens is that we have some of our senior citizens who have died, and their kids don’t want the property, so it deteriorates,” she said.

She said there is a nonprofit organization in the borough that has helped by fixing up rundown properties and selling them. “The Community Improvement Advisory Committee, an independent, non-profit group, has fixed up and sold two properties,” Ms. Smith said.

Ms. Smith said council also wants to work with Compass Savings Bank, which is offering reduced interest rates on mortgages for prospective homeowners.

Like many small towns, Wilmerding has seen an increase in rental properties.

“I’m hoping maybe a tenant who now rents in the borough will want to buy a property with this program,” she said.

The county program is open to residents, businesses, groups and municipalities.

County officials use federal Community Development Block Grant funds to help buy the properties.

“This program is growing,” said Cassandra Collinge, manager of housing development for the county’s Economic Development department.

“It really helps get blighted and abandoned property into the hands of individuals. Last year, we closed on 100 properties.”

“This program has a positive impact on neighborhoods and communities,” she said. “This gets someone to take tax responsibility for the property. And visually, some lots are in bad shape, so now people are committed to them.”

She said about 40 percent of those in the program are “side yard” participants, where homeowners need a little more elbow room for their families. Another 20 percent are sold to non-profit agencies working for affordable housing who want to rehabilitate abandoned houses. Other participants are businesses that want to expand or need parking space.

Municipalities also can purchase the properties.

Ms. Collinge said Wilkinsburg is a good example of a community where the program has worked. She said the borough has purchased properties that were converted into public playgrounds, for instance.

In addition to using federal funds, Ms. Collinge said the county is underwriting some of the costs of purchasing the vacant or blighted properties, as well.

“We have a $200,000 grant from the county, and Wilmerding will be eligible for that,” she said.

The borough council will now have to pass a resolution to comply with rules for participation in the program.

Deadline for individuals applying for this year’s program is Aug. 30.

The Allegheny County Redevelopment Authority is part of the Allegheny County Economic Development department, and it has a mission to stimulate economic and community growth.

It has low-interest loan programs to help homeowners and businesses improve and expand their properties.

It also acquires real estate property for economic development and to eliminate blighted properties.

The authority manages tax diversion plans, such as TIFs (Tax Increment Financing), to finance public infrastructure improvements for redevelopment projects. Taxes are diverted to make the improvements that increase the property’s assessed value and bring in new tax revenues.

The authority also aids housing initiatives with financing, business development, master planning and reclamation activities.

For more information on the Vacant Property Recovery Program: Department of Economic Development, 412-350-1090 or www.alleghenycounty.us/economic/residents/vacproprecov.aspx.

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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