Municipal officials schooled in ways to end blight in region

Here’s how pervasive the problem of blighted property is in Western Pennsylvania: The Steel Valley Council of Governments scheduled a meeting Thursday to distribute “Blight to Bright: A Comprehensive Anti-Blight Toolkit” to about 50 local officials but had to move the event to a gymnasium when more than 150 signed up for the program.

Homestead Mayor Betty Esper figured they came to the right place. “On every street in my town, we have blight,” she said.

That Mon Valley borough isn’t alone. A study released last week as part of a land banking business plan for Allegheny County estimated that 25 percent of the properties across the county lose 15 percent of their value because they are within 150 feet of a blighted property.

The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania prepared and distributed the tool kit Thursday to show municipal officials approaches that have worked to reduce blight in other places, including new tools added to state law in the past few years. They include aggressive code enforcement; eminent domain; taking property through conservatorship, which involves caring for an abandoned property and asking the court to grant ownership; and land banking, acquiring blighted property for resale.

In many cases, officials said, taking strong actions a few times can quickly get the attention of problem landlords. Thereafter, threatening action becomes just as effective.

That’s the approach Philadelphia began using in 2010, said Maura Kennedy, who ran the program there before she came to Pittsburgh this year as chief of the Bureau of Building Inspection. Using a team of interns, the city identified owners of blighted properties in some neighborhoods, sent them warning letters and worked with Common Pleas Court to assign one judge to hear blight cases. Thousands of letters were sent, but few cases ended up in court and many properties were improved, she said.

Philadelphia relied on a law that requires that property empty for more than 120 days continue to look as if it is occupied — no boarded-up windows or doors. Adding windows and doors was less expensive than the potential fines for violating the law, Ms. Kennedy said.

Ms. Kennedy said she is developing a similar program for Pittsburgh, but changes may need to be made in local ordinances to implement it. No timetable exists for beginning the program, but Mayor Bill Peduto has made it a priority.

Ms. Kennedy said the city will have “no tolerance” for derelict landlords. “If you own property, you have to take care of it,” she said.

Robert Ford, a councilman in Clairton, said his city had taken a variety of steps to deal with blighted property, with varying success. One innovative program, available only to cities that operate under the state’s Third Class City Code, would allow adjacent property owners to acquire blighted property through a yearly delinquent tax sale by maintaining the property for three years and paying current taxes. About 150 people have applied to the program in the past two years, but the city has been unable to turn over any of the properties because they have ended up in litigation.

“We’re trying everything we can,” he said.

Ed Blazina: or 412-263-1470.

Ed Blazina: or 412-263-1470.

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