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Mon Valley called 'ground zero' for blight

| Friday, July 25, 2014, 4:31 a.m.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Trib Total Media
Homestead Mayor Betty Esper welcomed participants to Thursday's 'From Blight to Bright' seminar at the Steel Valley Council of Governments Service Center in the old Homestead High School. Behind the podium is Steel Valley COG executive director An Lewis, while at right other speakers included Jim DeNova of the Benedum Foundation and Karen Black of May 8th Consulting who wrote the booklet 'From Blight to Bright, A Comprehensive Toolkit for Pennsylvania,' which was given to participants.

The Mon Valley is a “ground zero” for blight, said the author of a guide to dealing with abandoned properties.

“We have to look at what has been done and what is successful,” Karen Black said at a “From Blight to Bright” seminar on Thursday in Homestead.

“If land banking is the solution, we hope it starts here,” Homestead Mayor Betty Esper told more than 150 participants in the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania seminar at Steel Valley Council of Governments Service Center.

The alliance published Black's “From Blight to Bright, A Comprehensive Toolkit for Pennsylvania” with financing from the Benedum Foundation.

“This is an array of tools,” alliance executive director Liz Hersh said. “We look at it like a three-legged stool (with) land bank recycling, code enforcement and economic redevelopment.”

Black focused on “The High Cost of Blight” as assessed by the Tri-COG Collaborative of Steel Valley, Twin Rivers and Turtle Creek Valley councils of governments, which is taking a land bank plan to 120 Allegheny County municipalities including 40 members of the three councils.

“I think it can work,” Versailles council president Emerson Fazekas said. “It is going to take a lot of time and effort ... and cooperation.”

The collaborative said blight costs taxpayers in Tri-COG communities $19.3 million — a dim side to an otherwise bright situation.

“We're the only urban county in the country with property values that went up every year for the past seven years,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

Solutions detailed include:

• Requiring owners of vacant property to provide contact information about themselves or their local agents.

• Enforcing local and/or International Property Maintenance codes. Black said Etna began employing “a friendlier approach, using doorknob hanger signs that explain the need to remedy violations.”

• Establishing a blight fund as Mahanoy City did in Schuylkill County, using a budgeted 2-mill property tax to bring in $47,000 a year.

• Philadelphia's aid to property owners who can't afford to bring properties up to code.

That strategy by the Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia went along with increased pressure on vacant property owners by issuing citations proactively. Ira Goldstein, president of policy solutions for The Reinvestment Fund, said the combination resulted in property values rising by 32 percent.

New Pittsburgh Bureau of Building Inspections Chief Maura Kennedy found in a 2010 study in Philadelphia that problems with vacant properties cost that city $20 million in annual maintenance, $2 million in uncollected property taxes and $3.6 billion in household wealth.

She examined 40,000 parcels in Philadelphia, of which 77 percent are privately owned, 23 percent owned by the city.

“Residents and communities don't care if the city owns the property, they just want it fixed,” Kennedy said.

Not everyone was in agreement with the speakers.

“It shouldn't be about fines and fees,” Munhall council president Dan Lloyd said.

Lloyd said safety and security issues go hand in hand with blight. He showed a video of a person known as “Swashbuckler,” an overweight shirtless man who allegedly harasses Eighth Avenue businesses.

Lloyd said would-be investors have been dissuaded by such people who they might see as potential drug buyers or sellers.

“Don't be shied away by crime statistics,” Kennedy urged, saying blight removal is a huge deterrent to crime, even if grass is all that replaces a demolished building.

“I've been coming to these webinars and in-person events for three years faithfully,” McKeesport Preservation Society president Maryann Huk said. “Not once do they mention historic preservation as even something to deal with. It's not even on the radar.”

The seminar was capped by a discussion of what's been used to deal with blight in the Pittsburgh area.

East McKeesport administrator and secretary Connie Rosenbayger discussed the property database Local Government Academy interns helped her borough develop. The borough was divided into eight districts for code enforcement and has made Jamie Dinkfelt a full-time code enforcement officer. “We've been going strategically area by area,” Rosenbayger said.

East McKeesport benefited from a grant obtained through Turtle Creek Valley COG for a brownfield study by KU Resources on the lot where Hanna's flower shop now sits. It once was one of four locations of gas stations along Route 30 and Fifth Avenue. The three other gas station properties have been remediated, one of them for a GetGo.

Rosenbayger said the borough expects to get results of the study next week.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.