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Blight called a $250M burden for Mon Valley

| Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 12:19 a.m.

Vacant homes and blighted properties cost the Mon Valley and other eastern suburbs more than $250 million a year, according to a report to be released on Thursday.

Blight consumes police, fire and other municipal resources and erodes property tax revenue that schools and local governments rely on to operate, the report found.

“Before we did this study, we realized that many of the river towns were suffering. We understood that Wilkinsburg was suffering, and Braddock,” said Steel Valley Council of Governments Executive Director An Lewis, who worked on the study. “We all need to understand what blight is, and what it's costing us. What we learned through the report is the impact affects everybody.”

The Steel Valley, Turtle Creek Valley and Twin Rivers councils of governments studied blight in their 41 communities, which include Penn Hills, Plum, Forward, Monroeville, West Mifflin and Munhall. Populations in many of the communities have declined more than 50 percent since 1950, leaving neighborhoods with more than 7,000 lots with blighted buildings.

The communities contain 42 percent of the blighted properties in Allegheny County, Lewis said. Pittsburgh has 31 percent.

Blight and vacant properties “damage the fabric of the community,” the report stated. “Even more compelling is the fact that blight prevents private reinvestment in the neighborhoods.”

A blighted property causes the value of a neighboring, non-blighted property to decrease an average of 15 to 17 percent, according to the report. Based on an analysis of 28,478 properties, blight caused the properties to decrease in value by a combined $227 million.

Municipalities, school districts and the county lost out on $8.6 million in tax revenue in 2011. Police, fire and other departments spent $10.7 million on the properties in a year.

The results of the study are set to be presented during a summit at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Community College of Allegheny County's Boyce Campus in Monroeville. The study took more than a year and $100,000 to complete, Lewis said.

Lewis said she hopes the study will spur interest in creating land banks among the 41 communities. The year-old Pennsylvania Land Bank Act allows municipal governments to establish independent authorities to acquire abandoned and blighted properties, maintain and rehabilitate them and return them to the market, said Frank Alexander, a professor at Emory Law School who helped write the law.

“I don't know what any other solution there is beside a land bank,” said East McKeesport Administrator Connie Rosenbayger, who was involved with the study. “With the land banking, they can take these lots, and they can turn around and sell them.”

The three councils of governments secured a $45,000 grant from The Heinz Endowments to begin studying the creation of land banks, Lewis said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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