Allegheny County property recovery program grows



Tracey Evans says she gets calls "all the time" from people who ask why the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. doesn't fix up derelict properties.

The borough has more than 800 vacant buildings -- and counting. An inventory in 2008 led to the demolition of 88 buildings, but there were another 150 by 2012, she said.

"We can't keep up," said Ms. Evans, executive director of the CDC, whose mission is focused on helping the business district. "I tell people who call, 'Why don't you buy it and fix it up? We have a program to help you.' "

Wilkinsburg was one of the first boroughs to approve moving properties through Allegheny County's Vacant Property Recovery Program when the program expanded three years ago to include vacant buildings. It began as an incentive for people to buy side lots in the late 1990s, but Cassandra Collinge, manager of consumer programs for the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County, said the authority "has really grown it over the last three years to be more sophisticated."

More than 100 properties a year in the county are returned to the tax rolls, with 33 municipalities participating.

People can apply to buy side lots, vacant buildings and multiple lots for affordable housing -- all with clear title.

"The only way to get some people to invest is if they don't have a boatload of back taxes," Ms. Evans said.

Under the county program, when a potential new owner applies and is approved by the redevelopment authority, the authority forwards the proposals to the municipality, where the planning commission and the council vote on the proposed use. It has to be in harmony with any land use plan the municipality might have. The program also presents the council with a tough choice if a lot of debt is owed the borough.

But Ms. Evans said the taxing bodies get some of the debt owed on a property if it has any value.

"We almost always vote to approve if it has been approved by the county and the planning commission," she said.

The property has to be tax delinquent for three years or more and vacant. New buyers are approved if they are current on taxes and bills, have no outstanding code violations and submit documentation of their plan and the ability to carry it out.

City of Pittsburgh residents do not have access to this program, but they have a property reserve and the treasurer's sale as mechanisms to buy tax-delinquent and blighted properties. In a treasurer's sale, individuals can risk buying outright but the liens are included.

"They have to do their homework, because there could be mortgages and liens," city treasurer Margaret Lanier said.

If the city ends up with the property after a treasurer's sale, the city goes after the debt it is owed and then sells the property with a free and clear title to new buyers, she said.

With the property reserve, the city acquires and clears title when community development nonprofits identify properties for a viable reuse.

The county's program is more expedient and smoother than the city's, said Michael Sriprasert, who oversees real estate investments in Wilkinsburg for the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. "We can get a property in seven to nine months on the button."

Since 2007, the foundation has used the property recovery program to return 20 parcels to the tax rolls by creating 58 units of affordable housing in Wilkinsburg. The foundation entered that market in response to alarmed calls from residents when the borough was planning to demolish a number of historic buildings.

"We could not have done what we did" without the title-clearing program, said Arthur Ziegler, the foundation's president. "All of these buildings require substantial subsidies. Having the titles cleared for us reduces the amount of subsidy we need and simplifies the process."

Under the county program, properties are sold for the appraised value plus closing costs and a fee.

Ms. Collinge said Wilkinsburg and Braddock have made the most vigorous and wide-ranging use of the program.

"They have done affordable housing, side yards, parking for businesses, playgrounds, basketball courts and urban farms," she said. Wilkinsburg condo owners saved a 100-year-old, eight-unit building, and a sculptor added vacant lots to her studio space in an old firehouse where she also lives.

To begin the process for applicants, the redevelopment authority hires an appraiser. Ms. Collinge said that cost might be absorbed for side-yard applicants but would likely be passed on to an applicant proposing a profitable use.

Applicants do not get full title until the authority verifies they have followed through.

This spring, the Wilkinsburg CDC began advertising the program on bus shelters, in community newsletters and online to encourage more potential buyers, Ms. Evans said.

"There's nothing we can do about blighted and nuisance properties if we can't find the owner," she said.

The county has the legal recourse of eminent domain.

Ms. Collinge said the redevelopment authority has not yet determined whether the back taxes lost in the process are more or less than the taxes generated by new uses, largely because so many liens are so old.

"Some of these properties have been tax delinquent since the '30s," she said. "The greater benefit to the municipality is that someone is now responsible for the property and has removed a visual eyesore."

To request an application or to learn more about the program, contact the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County at 412-350-1079.

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk First Published May 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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