Walkabout: Warnings and help boost hilltop housing around Allentown

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Years ago, the real estate team at East Liberty Development Inc. made a point that stuck with me: You can fight the same crime ad nauseum or you can fix houses.

The point was that run-down, neglected properties affect public safety and the perception of safety.

East Liberty's mega-retail developments greatly helped drive its housing market, but the blight/fright connection resonates in every neighborhood that has been turning the corner on crime, in part because of initiatives to build and renovate properties.

In neighborhoods of the city's southern hilltop, there are so many houses to fix, so many infested lots and so few investors that a promising outlook almost seems Pollyanna-ish. Yet a letter-writing campaign is yielding some results.

The Hilltop Alliance, with a staff of two and a strategy to improve property, has set forth a project that offers home owners a helping hand.

Since summer 2012, the code enforcement task force of the alliance -- which represents 11 city neighborhoods and Mount Oliver borough -- has met every month with residents. Tim Dolan, the programs and communications specialist, said the task force's work became so popular that his focus shifted to property stabilization.

Letters inform property owners when their property has been identified in violation of a code. The alliance offers assistance before the violation turns into a citation, fine or lien.

In four months, 46 warning letters have been sent to property owners, more than half of whom have responded. One-third have made or are working on making repairs. Of 19 submitted to the city for action, 10 have been resolved.

The bulk of the complaints are about trash, overgrowth and structural damage. The bulk of property owners live in the houses at issue.

Mr. Dolan takes submissions from the task force and hits the streets to document conditions with his camera.

"I try to talk to the owner on site, but we also work with the city" to find people, he said, adding that the city has been responsive in clearing its own weedy lots and impassable sidewalks.

The Hilltop Alliance neighborhoods have a 15 percent vacancy rate, higher than the city's 13 percent, but the hilltop's rate is skewed by vacancies that account for a majority of land in Arlington Heights and St. Clair Village, once occupied by tenants of the city Housing Authority.

Taking the approach more strategically, the alliance has identified several micro-neighborhoods in Allentown and Beltzhoover to upgrade based on their proximity to assets and stronger housing markets. Their rate of rentals, 43 and 32 percent, respectively, fall below the city's 52 percent average.

With $25,000 from the PNC Foundation, the alliance is starting with a portion of Allentown that sits between the strong housing markets of Mount Washington and the South Side Slopes, where prices are competitive near Allentown's borders.

"We are trying to get the strong markets on either side to cross the lines," said Hilltop Alliance executive director Aaron Sukenik, who is consulting with community development corporations in Mount Washington and Allentown.

Mr. Dolan said he is going "block by block," using county data to find homeowners to begin promoting curb appeal improvements. The alliance is working with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Rebuilding Together to pay for those improvements. It also has $30,000 from the city's Advisory Council for Community-Based Organizations.

The hilltop has numerous underrated assets. Allentown has a lot of good housing stock, and its retail corridor, Warrington Avenue, has great potential with some strong businesses, trolley lines the alliance wants to see used again and proximity to Downtown and Route 51. Beltzhoover shares a border with Mount Washington, has a lot of decent housing stock, the beautiful McKinley Park, proximity to Route 51 and Downtown and the Boggs Avenue T station.

But first impressions lead to important decisions, including not to invest. A junky look pervades numerous patches of the hilltop neighborhoods. People make a neighborhood, but their properties are clues to outsiders as to whether they're in a "good" or a "bad" neighborhood.

The alliance's efforts to change that dynamic is lean and depends on community activism, but that's how most neighborhoods, including East Liberty, started their turnarounds.

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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