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Allegheny County's Vacant Property Recovery Program makes sites viable

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Allegheny County's Vacant Property Recovery Program enabled Alaa Aqra, owner of Al's Fish and Chicken in Wilkinsburg, to obtain a run-down home on a neighboring property, tear it down and turn the space into off-street parking for customers.

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Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Interest is soaring in an Allegheny County program aimed at putting neglected properties in the hands of new owners.

Nine communities this year joined the county's Vacant Property Recovery Program, which enables people to buy blighted properties without having to pay back taxes as long as they have a plan for the land. Communities benefit by seeing properties return to the tax rolls and someone's care.

“It's a win-win situation for everyone,” said Laura Ludwig, community development director in North Fayette, which opted in to the program last month.

Ludwig said the township has received about a half-dozen calls from interested buyers, including someone who wants to buy delinquent lots on both sides of a property he recently purchased so he can have a larger lot. The delinquencies date to the 1930s.

The program's recent additions put the number of participating communities at 40, almost one third of the county's municipalities.

Several participating communities, such as North Fayette, Ross and O'Hara, have median household incomes that are above the county's and aren't normally associated with having problems with blight or unpaid taxes.

“Every community has vacant properties that are sitting without taxes being paid on them,” O'Hara Manager Julie Jakubec said, noting O'Hara is owed $217,000 in unpaid property taxes, including one delinquency on a tiny parcel that dates to 1901.

Ross Manager Doug Sample said delinquencies in one section of the township go back to the 1930s and '40s, stemming from old fire department raffles that awarded tiny parcels of land to winners. Over the years, as property owners died or forgot about the land, the properties became delinquent. Ross joined the program last spring.

Jakubec said three people have taken advantage of the program since O'Hara joined about three years ago. They all bought overgrown, neighboring lots to expand their properties, she said.

That's how almost all people used what was referred to as the “side-yard program” when it started in the late 1990s, said Cassandra Collinge, manager of Allegheny County Economic Development's consumer programs.

Today, 40 percent to 50 percent of program participants are seeking bigger yards, she said. The program has broadened. Some people are seeking land with buildings that can be restored or, in other cases, torn down.

Urban farms, playgrounds, parking lots and housing for lower-income residents have been developed on land bought through the program.

“It's been great for us. We can't handle all of our vacant properties,” said Jennifer Salmans, administrative coordinator at the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. The borough has about 750 vacant properties.

In Wilkinsburg, 20 owners bought land through the program, Salmans said.

Alaa Aqra, owner of Al's Fish and Chicken on Penn Avenue in Wilkinsburg, bought a property with a rundown home behind his restaurant. He tore down the building to establish an off-street parking lot for patrons.

“That lot wasn't doing anything, but now many of my customers are using it,” Aqra said.

In Braddock, nonprofit Grow Pittsburgh doubled the size of an urban farm at 10th Street and Braddock Avenue through the program. Braddock Farms, the nonprofit's largest, is 1.2 acres.

“It's been an invaluable tool for our community. If it wasn't for the program, these properties would be zombie properties in perpetuity, giant-weed lots. This returns them to a higher, better use,” Braddock Mayor John Fetterman said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or

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