Blame for blighted properties in Monessen reaches across globe
Mayor Lou Mavrakis drove slowly through Monessen, block by block, pointing out one vacant, blighted building after another in the city of 7,700 along the Monongahela River.
“That belongs to me,” he said, pointing to a house with a collapsing roof that has become the responsibility of the city and the mayor.
Tax records show the building is one of 264 structures and lots in the city that have been abandoned by their owners. More than 26 percent of the city's 734 blighted properties are owned by people from 24 states and five foreign countries, beyond the legal reach of Monessen officials.
“It's almost impossible to get in touch with these owners,” Mavrakis said.
While the Legislature is considering a bill to tighten accountability of absentee property owners, cities such as Monessen are left to deal with hundreds of unmarketable, nontaxable eyesores.
The foreign owners owed more than $11,500 in back taxes until the properties were placed in a repository, county tax records show.
When an owner stops paying taxes, their property is put up for tax sale. If no one bids on it, the parcel is placed in a county repository and is no longer subject to property taxes. If it remains unsold, ownership eventually goes to the municipality.
An owner with an address in Portugal owes $788. A Brit living in the Turks and Caicos islands and an owner from Ontario, Canada, each owe more than $4,600. Other absentee owners are from China and England.
No foreign property owners could be reached for comment because they have unlisted numbers, no voicemail or no listings available in their home countries.
“I'm stuck with them,” said Mavrakis, who took office in January. “How do I tear them down when I don't have the money?”
Mavrakis said the city earmarked $1 million for demolition, but council spent it on park lights. The city will end 2014 with a $1.2 million deficit.
No way to collect
There's little chance the city will ever collect money from the absentee landlords, said District Judge Joseph Dalfonso, who issues citations to the property owners but seldom gets a response. He said Pennsylvania won't extradite someone from another state or country who owes summary fines and court costs.
“What's Lou (Mavrakis) going to do — send a policeman to China?” police Chief John Mandarino said.
Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, believes failure to maintain a property should be a criminal offense.
“It's time to up the ante on property owners and criminalize it,” she said.
An amendment to the state Neighborhood Blight Reclamation Act pending in the Legislature would hold property owners accountable for the condition of buildings by requiring them to provide phone numbers and addresses where they can be contacted.
Lawmakers say the law allows out-of-town property owners to place ownership in the names of shell companies, making it difficult to pin down the true owners.
The bill was referred to the House Urban Affairs Committee in June.
Hersh isn't sure why people from another country invest in these properties.
“We have tried to answer that question,” she said. “We've heard that they are eBay transactions and simply have no idea what they're buying. They really don't understand the local market and think they're making a good investment.”
Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, said the spread of absentee owners is a sign of the times.
“Clearly, we're in a time of a global economy, and now real estate is a global commodity,” he said. “That's not necessarily a sign that people are investing in property because they think there's going to be a turnaround.”
Mandarino doubts that most foreign owners have ever seen their properties in person.
“I've asked people, how did you find Monessen?” said Mandarino. “They said eBay. I asked an Indian gentleman once and he said he just typed ‘cheapest homes in United States' in Google, and that's how he found Monessen.”
Every abandoned structure in Monessen has broken windows; many have been stripped of doors.
Some are obscured by overgrown trees and weeds.
In others, the stench of decay is overpowering.
Drug addicts, vandals, squatters and the elements have left the interiors strewn with fallen plaster and trash.
Thieves have plundered copper pipes, wiring, aluminum siding, kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures, Mandarino said.
“We board them up, and three months later, the boards are ripped off, and the homes are open again,” Mandarino said.
Dilapidated structures in any municipality attract criminals, according to police.
Monessen officers recently discovered 150 pounds of marijuana with a street value of $300,000 and a sophisticated growing operation in one Knox Avenue house.
The two brothers accused of running the operation are from Pittsburgh but told police they lived in the house, even though authorities found no food or clothing in the home, according to court records.
The brothers bought the house for $9,000, county property records indicate.
Abandoned homes are a haven for drug dealers, Mandarino said.
“People are going in there to shoot up, smoke crack,” he said. “Dealers use them to sell heroin so they don't have to sell it on street corners. Kids go in there for underage drinking parties.”
Neighbors of blighted properties say they are angry and frustrated.
Marie Lipari, whose Terrace Avenue home adjoins a vacant, rundown property, said she was hanging clothes to dry when a snake slithered out of the high grass into her backyard.
Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.