A few years before Renee Rosensteel and Bill O’Driscoll bought their 10-room, 19th-century fixer-upper on the North Side, the state Legislature passed a bill designed to find saviors for homes that nobody had been able to rescue.
That proved fortuitous for this couple. It wasn’t too long after their move-in in 2012 that bricks from the chimney top of a home on Juniata Street fell very close to the car Ms. Rosensteel had parked behind their home on Chateau Street. She raised a ruckus with the tenant but, by the time bricks fell again a year or so later, the tenant had died and the owner was gone, too, so “there was no one to raise a ruckus with.”
This new state law provided the mechanism for what she describes “as a surgical strike on blight.” There’s remaining paperwork, but the house on Juniata now belongs to Ms. Rosensteel and her husband. They’ve done all they’ve needed to do under the Blighted and Abandoned Property Conservatorship law, which has meant everything from hundreds of sloppy hours of grunt work to paying about $7,000 in back taxes to borrowing against their own home to pay contractors and legal fees.
About 45 appointed conservators in Allegheny County are working through this new process, but this is the first property acquisition that has been brought to completion, the couple’s attorney believes.
“I’ve never had clients who worked so hard,” lawyer Kiersten Lane said.
We walked through the old house Wednesday morning. Renovations are far from complete but the heat’s on and Ms. Rosensteel can almost make you believe the first floor will be ready for Airbnb rentals in a month.
Money from that should help pay for turning the upper two floors into an apartment, which sure beats falling bricks.
Countless residents of older neighborhoods, in and out of the city, have to hope this small victory against blight can be replicated many times over. Innumerable long-abandoned buildings in Allegheny County and beyond haven’t a savior in sight because the legal brambles around such places are so daunting.
Under this act, a neighbor within 500 feet, a nonprofit, a redevelopment authority, the municipality or the school district can ask a judge to appoint a responsible party to bring a property into compliance with code standards. Stipulations include the home being free of foreclosure and no legal occupants for a year.
This route to a deed is “not for the faint of heart,” Ms. Rosensteel said, but she walked me through the steps she and her husband took to become conservators.
After the second brickfall about three years ago, she saw a building inspector poking around the property, and he told her it was about to go on the demolition list, Ms. Rosensteel called LaShawn Burton-Faulk, executive director of the Manchester Citizens Corp., who joined her in keeping it off the demo list.
The owner of the Juniata property had died a couple of years before they moved in behind it, Ms. Rosensteel said. That woman had left no will and had no legal heir, but a stepson had rented the house to a tenant who then also died. The heat was turned off, vandals stole pipes and people started going in and out of the place without any title to it. Then the chimney fell again and “I had a really compelling reason to do this” conservatorship.
After getting control of the house through the courts, the couple made more than one trip to the police station to turn in drug paraphernalia and bullets that had been left behind. A confrontation with a man who’d been coming and going from the house began badly but ended amicably, and then all that was ahead of them were just the usual recurring headaches of any major gut job.
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