Housing prices have stood still at six towns in Mon Valley
Dawn and Jeff Owen are renovating a three-bedroom house in Pitcairn.
Derrick Smith, 13, left, and Benjamin Payne, 14, right, shovel snow outside the home of Jeff Owen, center, in Pitcairn. Mr. Owen is rehabbing the house and downsizing to Pitcairn from a home in Murrysville.
From left, Benjamin Payne, Lamar Woodward, 14, and Derrick Smith visit Gary Agate at his Pitcairn home. The boys live on the same street where Gary and his wife, Carol, recently moved.
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When David Schweissing moved to Pitcairn from South Florida five years ago, he found himself in real estate territory undreamed of in his former home -- a town where values have neither increased nor decreased in more than 20 years.
"I had never been in the middle of a Northern industrial city where the economy was built on manufacturing," said Mr. Schweissing, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Pitcairn. "This is the first city I've ever lived in where the population was not growing."
For a small town that has yet to regain its economic footing since losing all of its major industries about three decades ago, Pitcairn has managed to carry on and even maintain its property values.
In fact, both the average and median price of homes in this working class community of about 3,000 residents are about the same today as they were 23 years ago in 1987 when RealSTATs, a real estate information service, initially started compiling data on local housing trends.
While many communities here and across the nation have seen significant swings in housing values, Pitcairn's average price of $31,105 in 2010 has hardly changed since 1987 when it was $30,665.
As stunning as that statistic may seem, Pitcairn is not the only former mill town in the Monongahela Valley with stable real estate values.
A RealSTATs analysis of Mon Valley communities that rode the highs and lows of the steel industry identified five other towns where median home prices have flatlined: Turtle Creek, Wilmerding, Braddock, Duquesne and McKeesport.
"These communities are treading water, trying to keep their heads high enough to breathe," said Dan Murrer, vice president of RealSTATs. "The question is how long can they keep treading?
"You'd like to think your home is appreciating," he said. "Folks in Mt. Lebanon have that comfort in knowing their home is worth more over time. People who own homes in the Mon Valley don't have that comfort."
The Mon Valley gets its name and identity in large part from the Monongahela River, which provided water and transportation for the many manufacturing plants that once lined its banks. Workers migrated to communities along the river for work and a place to live. They moved on when those jobs disappeared and the region's population fell.
Today, Pitcairn has lost many of its retail businesses and has become a bedroom community of Monroeville. It has no coffee shop, no bakery, no doctors or dentists and no sit-down restaurants.
"The true Mon Valley lost so many jobs as the industry mix there went out of favor," said Howard "Hoddy" Hanna III, chairman and CEO of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services.
"And there has not been a road system created there. The much-talked-about Mon Valley Expressway has never happened," he said, adding that some more suburban communities in the Mon Valley such as North Huntingdon and Rostraver have seen rises in property values.
Still, the housing stock in Pitcairn is solid. There are only a handful of homes for sale and few rental vacancies.
Gary and Carol Agate moved to a four-bedroom, three-story home in Pitcairn they paid $27,500 for in June after selling a townhome they owned in Monroeville.
They thought living in a townhouse community would be a good way to meet neighbors and make friends, but said they ended up feeling lonely and isolated.
In Pitcairn, they say, the residents sit on their front porches in the summertime and greet people who walk by or stop to chat. The Agates can walk to their church, the bank, the corner store and the takeout pizza shop. Children stop by to shovel their snow and neighbors keep an eye on their place when they go away for a weekend.
"I'm here until they plant me. I love it here that much," said Mr. Agate, a route supervisor at Turner Dairy Farm in Penn Hills, where he has worked for 37 years.
"I told the kids around here that I'll be here to see them go to junior high and graduate from high school. This is like living 50 years ago. This is the old-fashioned way."
Michelle Coffman, a ReMax real estate agent who had three properties listed in Pitcairn last year, said the community is stigmatized by a higher crime rate, lower-income residents, high absentee landlord ownership and higher taxes than neighboring communities.
It is more challenging to buy property in Pitcairn now, she said, because of occupancy inspections that often require homes to be rewired or have other expensive improvements before a new owner can move in. The borough has employed an occupancy inspector for at least two decades.
"Multifamily properties are required to be reinspected for every single tenant that moves out before a new one can move in," Ms. Coffman said. "That means the owner must pay for the inspection and more repairs.
"As a municipality, Pitcairn also requires residents to use its water and cable service," she said, "and it requires buyers and tenants to have a certain credit score to have utilities turned on in their name."
What it often amounts to is a home listed for $15,000 in Pitcairn could likely end up costing more than twice that amount in improvements and repairs before a new owner is granted a certificate of occupancy. Trafford also has an occupancy inspector and similar rules.
According to U.S. Census data, the population of Pitcairn, which spans about a square half-mile radius, declined from 4,087 residents in 1990 to 3,324 in 2009. However, Pitcairn's household income of $37,861 has increased by 47.4 percent and its percentage of college graduates has improved by 111.5 percent since 2000.
Dawn and Jeff Owen represent the higher-income, college-educated influx of new residents to this town strategically located near Route 30, Route 22, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and about a half hour from Downtown.
They have put their home in Murrysville up for sale while they renovate a three-bedroom home in Pitcairn they bought for $17,000 in July.
"We are trying to move in and be part of the community," said Mr. Owen, a partner at the Downtown law firm Cooper Owen and Renner. "We are moving out of Plasticville to be among real people. Pitcairn has front porches. The suburbs have backyard decks."
When the Owen family decided to downsize, they chose Pitcairn because it is close to Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church of Pitcairn, a church where they've become involved and made friends.
Another new resident of Pitcairn, Charlayne Henry, recently converted an abandoned church on Third Street to a performing arts center for children and adults. And members of the Presbyterian Church of Pitcairn have started an after-school tutoring program for neighborhood youths.
"Our goal is to help transform Pitcairn into a community of hope," Mr. Owen said.
"I think we have something to offer and we are moving in to try to make a difference," he said. "We want to rehab more houses and try to attract more families here."
As for Mr. Schweissing, he recently bought the five-bedroom house next door to his church, which was vacant for 10 years before he got it at a sheriff's sale for $1. He owns a home in Trafford he is trying to sell.
He and his wife, Kerri, are now renovating the house, which they hope to move into by this summer.
First Published January 16, 2011 12:00 am