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Dormont to renovate, sell houses

| Friday, Dec. 13, 2013, 10:01 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Keith Buono stands in front of a house on Dormont Street in Dormont, Thursday, December 12, 2013. The house is one of two abandoned houses that Buono is renovating. Dormont is the first municipality in the region to use a 2008 state law to be appointed 'conservator' on abandoned properties. The court allows the borough to put up the money for the renovation costs, then recoup the investment after the property sells.

Dormont is taking over the renovation and resale of two abandoned houses, under a state law aimed at reducing blight, marking the first time an Allegheny County municipality became a “conservator” for such properties.

The properties in the 1400 block of Dormont Avenue and the 2700 block of Broadway Avenue are dilapidated, said solicitor John Rushford. The owner of the Dormont Avenue house died, leaving no apparent heirs, and the Broadway Avenue property is owned by a Florida bank with no interest in fixing it, he said.

“(We're operating) under the theory that the properties have been abandoned, the owners can't be reached and the properties still have value,” Rushford said. Both homes are within walking distance of Port Authority light-rail stations and businesses along West Liberty or Potomac avenues.

A 2008 state law allows courts to appoint a conservator — usually a nonprofit or neighborhood development corporation — to rehabilitate or demolish a property that is unoccupied for at least a year, hasn't been marketed for sale in at least 60 days, isn't subject to foreclosure and wasn't acquired by its owner during the past six months.

Few local agencies use conservatorship because of the narrow circumstances allowing it.

“It's a little bit more surgical, to get at a certain subset of abandoned or blighted properties,” said Bethany Davidson, deputy director of Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. “In order to be able to be appointed, not only do you have to have a plan in place, but you have to have the financing in place or available.”

With the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court appointment, Dormont will front money for renovations and attempt to recover the investment by selling the homes, Rushford said.

The law prohibits Dormont from profiting because the borough won't own the properties. Sale proceeds above the cost of renovations must go to owners or their estates, he said.

In addition to being relatively untried, conservatorship carries the risk that properties will be in worse shape than expected once a court gives the conservator full access, Davidson said.

It is best applied to salvageable buildings with little to no taxes owed, though part of the court process can clear tax or mortgage liens for a “clean title,” said Perry O'Malley, executive director of the Butler County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

His agency used conservatorship to assume eight properties in the past year. “You hope to get properties before they're too far gone and you can have a plan to restore them,” O'Malley said.

The court appointed Keith Buono, a Mt. Lebanon contractor who has bought and rehabilitated buildings in Dormont, including the former borough building, to work with Dormont as primary contractor for the homes. He estimates $43,000 in work is needed at the Dormont Avenue house and $113,000 at the Broadway Avenue house for roofs, porches, siding, sidewalks, doors and windows.

When the court allows him to go inside, Buono said, he'll revise his estimate to include interior work. He wants to attract buyers through upgraded kitchens, bathrooms and floors.

“My bid is to get them all rehabilitated, not just up to code ... so they can bring in some people who are going to spend some money,” Buono said. “The borough has the resources, so why not use them?”

Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or

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