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Valley News Dispatch

New Kensington gives two condemned homes a second chance

| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, 5:00 p.m.

Three people are getting their shot at the American Dream after convincing New Kensington Council they will rehabilitate condemned houses.

Norman L. Cyphert and his girlfriend, Terri L. Bastecki, successfully made their case Monday to purchase, renovate and live in a house at 446 Freeport St.

Brendan Edward Stubblefield did the same for a house located at 1207 Victoria Ave.

Both properties are in the Westmoreland County Repository of Unsold Properties. Properties in the repository, many of them abandoned and deteriorating, are those that are two or more years delinquent in taxes and have gone through upset and judicial sales but remain unsold.

Prospective buyers for such a property can submit a bid to the county’s tax claim director and, if it is accepted, the municipality where the building is located has 40 days to approve the sale.

Council members questioned the buyers about their plans and finances, trying to gauge how serious they are about renovating the properties.

They were torn between the desire to give prospective homeowners a chance for ownership and returning the properties to the tax rolls and concern that the new owners will underestimate the task before them. Council members said, when the latter happens, the new owners abandon the houses once more, letting them remain as eyesores, allowing them to deteriorate further and forcing the city to go back through procedures to condemn and demolish them.

Code Enforcement Officer Pat McGrath said the Freeport Street house Cyphert bid on, which has been vacant for seven years, is “a solid structure” despite having some damage from a fire.

“I think it could be saved,” McGrath said.

As for the house Stubblefield bid on, McGrath said it appears that only part of the roof is damaged but he has not been inside to view the property further. Council seemed more concerned about that one because it has been abandoned for ten years and was higher on the demolition list.

After going back and forth with the buyers council approved both sales but warned they will hold the buyers to strict schedules for getting the properties fixed.

Reaction to council’s decision was mixed.

Resident Ellen Carabin said, while she supports council in its efforts to revitalize the city, she disagreed with the property sales. She said she is angry that her tax dollars have to be spent to demolish houses because their owners do not take care of them. She seemed skeptical of the bidders’ ability to rehab the properties because of costs and indicated that tearing down the two structures would have been the right move.

“Once they have that house, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle,” she said.

Kathy Naumann of the grassroots community group New Ken Rising said most residents in town don’t understand the “monster” the city is dealing with when it comes to blight. She criticized council for not putting a list of properties slated for demolition on the city’s website for residents to view.

Mayor Tom Guzzo said that is something that will be done but, right now, the latest list still is being compiled.

John Zavadak, the city’s controller, stepped down from his seat at the dais and went to the microphone to speak as a resident.

“I want to commend you guys (council) tonight for giving some people a chance at the American Dream — owning their own home.

He said, in the 17 years he has been in the city, officials have demolished more than 300 homes. He said each demolition costs the city $1,000 up front for a title search and asbestos assessment before any action is taken and the demolitions themselves cost, on average, about $10,000.

“I look at it this way: every one that we can pull out of the fire for someone to rehab, that’s $10,000 we’ve saved,” Zavadak said.

“This was a tough decision,” Councilman Doug Aftanas said. “I hope you understand that. The residents spoke well enough about what they want to do that I felt I should give them a chance.”

A third house from the repository, located at 522 Ridge Ave., was rejected for sale when the prospective buyer failed to show up and outline his plans for it.

Tom Yerace is a freelance writer.

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