Housing data show Monessen's delinquent tax predicament
By Kate Wilcox
Published: Saturday, June 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Monessen officials say a perfect storm of lost industry and plummeting population has saddled the city with an unwelcome distinction — more than half of the 539 properties in Westmoreland County's repository of tax-delinquent parcels are in the struggling river town.
Although other communities with comparable or larger populations, such as Jeannette and New Kensington, have weathered crippling economic blows, Monessen, with 7,700 residents, has about 12 times as many parcels — 273 — on the list of delinquent properties as either of those towns.
The cache holds real estate that is at least two years delinquent on local and county taxes and has been put up for sheriff's sale but not sold.
Although Monessen has attempted to demolish its blocks of ramshackle, sometimes collapsing residential and commercial buildings, city officials say there is not enough money to raze every blighted building.
Westmoreland County Commissioner Charles Anderson said the success of one town over another comes down to a community's mindset and the ability of a mayor and council to make difficult decisions.
“Sometimes, it has to be tough love,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to make the hard decisions.”
Using an analogy from his career as a Marine Corps pilot, Anderson said, “You get into a death spiral, (and) you need to get out of that thing before you hit the ground.”
For Monessen to pull out of its spiral, two things must happen, according to Liz Hersh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance.
Strict code enforcement is crucial along with careful crafting of a process to obtain delinquent properties, then demolish or rehabilitate them, Hersh said.
“The biggest failure (comes with) not trying,” she added.
“Maybe we can't get the big steel mill back to Monessen, but can we have houses that have acres of garden space?” Hersh asked.
Echoing Anderson, Hersh said the real key is strong community leadership and community support.
Monessen's stab at dealing with its blighted properties has divided the community and sparked bitter political skirmishes that many believe resulted in Mayor Mary Jo Smith's defeat in the May primary.
Smith was the leading proponent of a controversial plan called “Monessen Rising,” which called for buying delinquent parcels from the county and reselling them to artists looking for low-cost properties where they can live, work and sell their wares.
Smith and other officials enlisted the aid of two Staten Island, N.Y., developers, who met stiff opposition along with jeers and shouts when they discussed the plan at public meetings.
During a recent tour of houses in the county's supply, Smith gestured to a home without stairs leading to the splintered front porch that is home to a stray cat living inside a discarded playpen.
“If you lived next to this, would you fix your house up?” she asked.
It's a story that plays out in many neighborhoods across the city.
On some streets, Smith said, it can be difficult to distinguish between homes on the county's list of delinquent homes and those that are occupied but have been neglected.
Brian Jensen, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh, agreed.
“Once a particular house gets blighted, there's a tendency for that rot to spread,” Jensen said. “Once you get a critical mass of abandoned properties, the markets tend to depress, just from being a certain distance from a foreclosed home.”
Monessen's aging population has played a role, according to city administrator John Harhai, who on a recent tour of the city pointed to a house that belonged to an elderly woman who had moved out of the state to live with her children.
“They can't sell it, can't afford to keep it up,” Harhai said. “They feel bad, but here it sits.”
Because real estate was considerably cheaper in Western Pennsylvania during the housing boom six or seven years ago, many out-of-state corporations purchased multiple properties in Monessen and other towns sight unseen with the hope of turning a profit when the market surged.
Many walked away when the recession struck. Some of those companies were each responsible for 10 or 20 properties on the delinquency list, records show.
Tales of two cities
Like Monessen, New Kensington has battled its share of problems, including serious crime, an aging population and a depressed economy.
Although with 13,000 residents it is larger than Monessen, it was dealt a significant blow when Alcoa vacated its research labs off Freeport and Edgewood roads.
But officials never let that exodus trigger a landslide of vacant, blighted buildings, which is why it has only 20 properties in the county's cache today, said Kim McAfoose, executive director or New Kensington's Redevelopment Authority.
Years ago, she said, particularly tenacious officials began the practice of buying delinquent properties, then quickly demolishing them.
By courting new businesses and condemning and demolishing unusable properties, the city attracted businesses such as Geo-Solutions and a branch campus of Westmoreland County Community College.
“It's a pretty inviting place to do business, and we're going to continue to keep it that way,” Mayor Tom Guzzo said.
For some time, Jeannette has been dangerously close to falling under state oversight because of its deep financial difficulties.
The loss of Jeannette's glass-making industry, coupled with an aging and decreasing population, could have spawned a surge in abandoned, tax-delinquent properties.
Even so, the city, with 2,000 fewer residents than Monessen, has not let that happen. Records show Jeannette has only 23 homes on the county's list of seriously delinquent properties that have gone unsold at sheriff's sales.
As the glass industry waned, city officials encouraged the growth of other businesses, such as Elliott Co., which deals in turbo machinery and employs about 900 workers.
With limited funding, Monessen has chosen to demolish unsalvageable vacant houses at a cost of $20,000 each, then try to sell the vacant plots to neighbors.
But the city lacks the money to purchase and demolish all of its blighted properties, Smith said.
Anderson said the county is working with Monessen to obtain a $400,000 grant to purchase additional homes.
Kate Wilcox is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
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