Walkabout: Blighted properties are a pox on Pittsburgh

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In two decades, Pittsburgh has become a city that deserves accolades, one that can boast of another "renaissance." We're cleaner, greener and more progressive. We're getting younger, and investment is growing.

But of the many feathers in our cap, the "most livable" boast would be easy to ridicule if you have to look at 502 Chester Ave. every day. In Perry South, it's one among thousands of city properties that are not only unlivable but destructive.

When a city has half the density it once had -- with huge swaths of vacant land, garbage-strewn hillsides and crumbling homes that have little time for realistic rescue -- it's clear what the greatest challenge is.

Blight is emotionally unsettling to residents. It hurts property values; burdens building inspectors, police and firefighters; and occupies the courts. It breeds illicit behavior, which further unsettles neighborhoods, deepens the loss of property value, further burdens public safety and court officers and demands more public money -- our tax dollars.

The neighborhoods most beset pay fewer taxes and require disproportionate public cost to eradicate it. Few costs are so compounding and hard to cut.

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After reading about the "Eyesore of the Month" in The Bulletin -- the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.'s monthly newspaper -- I went yesterday to see it. It's a derelict row house in Lawrenceville, but I could think of worse examples.

Not to pick on Perry South; I lived there happily through the 1990s. Feeling sentimental about my old street, I headed toward it. On the way, I stopped to gawk at house after house that nobody has loved for a very long time.

It's sobering to realize that most blighted homes were in the hands of responsible taxpayers when Pittsburgh was the butt of jokes on late-night television.

Last fall, city council passed legislation to enable the posting of signs on the 10 worst properties, according to housing court data, with names and phone numbers of the owners. The intent was to encourage residents to demand repairs.

The state now has two statutes that address this issue.

The Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act became law in 2012. It gives municipalities the ability to fine, extradite, attach private assets and deny permits. In 2010, the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act allowed municipalities to ask the court to appoint a third party to take possession of blighted, abandoned buildings and rehabilitate or tear them down.

Elizabeth Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, said people are still being trained to know how to put these laws to work most effectively.

Smart Growth America reports that the cost of maintenance vs. the property's value is what prompts most property abandonment. If market pressure is absent or flagging, rescue becomes more expensive the longer a property sits.

We have so many blighted properties that the market can pick and choose what to save. It is picking away at the most promising sites, some in the East End where the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. still has to shame people into doing the right thing.

"We have had some good results" from the " 'eyesore of the month' " in the Bulletin, said Aggie Brose, deputy director of the BGC. "We have to go out and check these properties, and I pick the worst of the worst after doing a lot of research. When people call and say, 'How dare you?' I say, 'Hey, it's public information.'

"I had one on Negley Avenue where the weeds were so high we couldn't see the front door or the porch. It was owned by a doctor who lives out of town. I said to her, 'You're leaving this in our neighborhood and it's a corner lot.' "

As I worked my way deliberately through my old neighborhood noting weeds, litter, rotting porches, peeling paint, sagging gutters and jagged or boarded windows, I considered the possibilities this city could offer tens of thousands of the young, the inventive, the creative, the risk-takers in cities that have become unaffordable.

How to get them here ... that's the challenge for the city and a marketing wizard to team up on if this renaissance is really going to spread.

neigh_city - intelligencer

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk


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