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Valley News Dispatch

'Zombie' homes with no living owners plaguing communities near Pittsburgh

Natasha Lindstrom
| Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Western Pennsylvania is home to a pair of the top 10 “most haunted housing markets” in the United States, a national real estate research firm has found.

The city of Duquesne and the 15104 ZIP code encompassing Braddock, North Braddock and Rankin ranked Nos. 3 and 4, respectively, on Attom Data Solutions' report of “America's Spooktacular Zips,” which used the premise that areas with the highest proportion of vacant homes and dead homeowners are the “most likely to be haunted.”

Don't dismiss the spooky label too quickly, though.

The Halloween-inspired statistic about potentially paranormal properties spotlights a real problem here: A glut of aging, dilapidated houses continues to stymie efforts to revitalize some of the region's most economically depressed areas.

“It is a tremendous concern because, as populations decline and people move from a lot of our communities, they've left behind homes in states of disrepair,” said Robert Hurley, director of Alle­gheny County Economic Development, noting that a top annual request from communities is more money to raze vacant homes.

“They attract crime. They attract vermin. They create problems for communities, and they also don't generate any tax revenue,” Hurley said.

The problem isn't shared nationally: Vacancies are plaguing pockets of greater Pittsburgh while the nation as a whole suffers from a shortage of homes.

In Western Pennsylvania, “there's too much supply for demand, which is the reverse of what we see in a lot of the rest of the country,” said Daren Blomquist, a senior vice president of Irvine, Calif.-based Attom Data Solutions. “That means home prices are probably stagnant or going down, and it's a downward spiral because it isn't just that there's more supply, but vacant properties become blight. They fall into disrepair and even further drive down values and the quality of the neighborhood.”

Of the nation's roughly 85 million residential properties, more than 1.3 million, or 1.6 percent, were vacant in February — a 9.3 percent drop from the third quarter of 2015, according to the most recent RealtyTrac data.

Of roughly 1,900 single-family homes in Duquesne (ZIP code 15110), 256 are vacant — nearly 14 percent. About 10 percent of 2,900 homes in the 15104 ZIP code (Braddock, North Braddock and Rankin) are vacant.

“They're zombie properties,” Braddock Mayor John Fetterman said. “They can't find the owner. The owners are dead. The owners are living in Florida, Mexico or Texas.”

Fetterman, however, boasted that Braddock has made a significant dent in its share of vacancies in recent years by demolishing blighted properties. He cited at least two homes purchased in the past few weeks at the full asking price — about $30,000 — relative to the likes of Pittsburgh's residentially booming Lawrenceville, where the average selling price is closer to $200,000.

“Our development efforts over the last 10 years have been paying off,” Fetterman said. “We've got abandoned houses that have become urban farms and playgrounds.”

Vacancies start to destabilize housing markets when the rate climbs above 2 percent or falls below 0.5 percent, Blomquist said, with razor-thin rates leading to inflated prices and rents like those seen in markets such as Northern California's San Jose, which has a vacancy rate of 0.2 percent.

ZIP codes covering Ambridge (Beaver County), McKeesport, McKees Rocks, Monessen and Turtle Creek are among those that have residential vacancy rates of 5 percent or higher.

“The one thing these markets have going for them is they're very affordable,” Blomquist said. “You can attract real estate investors who come in and start improving the properties.”

Josh Caldwell, president of the 1,150-member Pittsburgh Real Estate Investors Association, said he favors private-market solutions over the likes of land banks and demolition, which he fears can lead to too many vacant lots.

“The problem is that so many of these houses are encumbered with back taxes and various liens to the point where it makes them economically infeasible for anybody in the private sector to do anything with them,” Caldwell said. “If I have to put $50,000 into something that's going to sell for $30,000 when it's done, then I'm a moron. The houses get trapped in a cycle where they just become derelict.”

And when it comes to choosing which homes to buy and fix, Caldwell said, “it costs the same to rewire a house in Braddock as it does in Lawrenceville.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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