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Rise in rental properties weighs on Alle-Kiski towns

Mary Ann Thomas
| Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, 11:40 p.m.

Michael Gutonski, who grew up in West Tarentum in the 1960s and '70s, remembers doctors and lawyers with homes in the neighborhood.

Now he's not sure who lives down the street.

More than half of the residences in Tarentum are rentals, a figure that jumped by about 24 percent in the past decade, according to the federal Census Bureau. Property values dropped about 25 percent during the same time.

An increasing number of rental properties works well in communities with stable, in-demand housing markets like Aspinwall, which has nearly 60 percent of its housing stock as middle-income rentals.

But for old, economically distressed industrial towns, too many rentals ruin the fabric of the traditional neighborhoods and push down property values.

“Tarentum will work with anybody, and we encourage anyone ... to rehab and live in one of our homes,” Gutonski said. “We would love to have people come in and take pride in the property.”

A Tribune-Review analysis of Census Bureau data found that the number of rental properties increased in 63 percent of Alle-Kiski Valley communities in the past decade.

It's not surprising that many of the older, industrial towns have increasing numbers of rental properties, said Brian Jensen, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh. He speculated that many towns still are suffering from the decades-old decline of the region's steel industry, with residents moving away to find work and leaving affordable housing for landlords to snap up.

Jobs have returned, infusing cash in the regional economy — but only in pockets.

“Things look good in downtown Pittsburgh, and some places are doing really great,” Jensen said. “But other places have been left behind. It's absolutely a problem that the region is going to have to work on to fix.”

Jensen said any economically distressed area with a high concentration of rentals — especially if there are absentee landlords — will have numerous downsides such as crime and other social ills.

Not all created equal

Locally based landlords can help a deteriorating housing stock, said Heidi Powell, past president of the Greater Allegheny-Kiski Board of Realtors and owner of RE/MAX Dynamic Realtors in Freeport.

In Arnold, where the city has been razing blighted buildings, investor-owners help the town by rehabbing buildings on the verge of demolition, said Tom Dunn, Arnold's community development director.

“Granted, there are those who don't care who their tenants are,” said Dunn. “But there are a number of landlords who are good for the city.”

Not all landlords are equal, acknowledged Gutonski, who complained that out-of-state companies from Maryland, California and South Carolina have purchased some of his borough's abandoned properties, often based on Internet information.

Those landlords don't know all the rules in any given town, according to Helene Prince, regional property manager of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in Murrysville.

The property management company handles a range of rentals “from HUD to Hollywood” in Southwestern Pennsylvania that are owned by people from around the world, Prince said.

“If they are coming (to own a rental) from Israel or Manhattan, they may have a totally different mentality of how a property should look and the safety features,” she said.

An out-out-town landlord might say, “Ah, it doesn't matter,” according to Prince. “That's when it's great to have an occupancy permit inspection to back up the quality and safety of a rental.”

Rule enforcement stressed

Many towns have code enforcement officers and regulations to enforce property upkeep, but local governments need to enforce rules.

Jensen stressed that residents have to get involved by electing effective leaders.

“That means good, smart, forward-thinking people,” he said. “Those elected officials have to hire good people and let them do their job.”

Then there's a marketing issue.

Some towns, saddled with reputations for cheap rentals, scare away potential homebuyers.

More buyers need to know that there are great housing deals in Tarentum and other towns, Gutonski said.

“A house could easily be turned around with a coat of fresh paint and some vinyl siding,” he said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at mthomas@tribweb.com.

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