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Squirrel Hill attorney says stimulus should address city blight

| Wednesday, July 15, 2009, 12:00 p.m.

An independent candidate for Pittsburgh mayor on Tuesday said the current administration should use federal stimulus money to identify and fund the demolition of blighted properties.

The mayor's office responded, saying its application for $30 million in stimulus money details a plan to do just that.

Kevin Acklin, 33, an attorney from Squirrel Hill, introduced his four-point plan, the first major public policy initiative of his campaign, during a news conference at his South Side headquarters.

"This administration's policy of not addressing abandoned housing leaves Pittsburgh with a diminished housing stock, drives families out of our city, reduces the values of the homes of the families that do stay and further erodes the city's tax base," he said.

Acklin called for devoting stimulus money for the demolition and refurbishment of abandoned properties, a comprehensive inventory of abandoned properties and a program that would allow individuals and community groups to acquire and refurbish abandoned properties through low-interest loans and tax credits.

Cheryle E. Campbell, field office director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said about $2 billion for such work is available through the agency's Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said the administration has put an "unprecedented amount of money into demolition."

"Our budget now for demo is $5 million, that's up from $2 million when I became the mayor," he said. "My response to Mr. Acklin's remarks today are I'm glad he thinks the things we're doing are helping, and he has the same vision we do in terms of trying to take back our neighborhoods."

Kim Graziani, the city's director of neighborhood initiatives, said the city asked for $30 million in federal stimulus money to acquire, rehab and sell foreclosed and abandoned property. About $3 million is for demolition and planting greenery around foreclosed properties.

To increase its chances of getting money, the city provided $30 million in matching funds — $6 million from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, $5 million from the city and the remainder from private banking partners, she said.

"The goal is to get them back on the tax rolls and to prevent further blighting," Graziani said.

Franco "Dok" Harris, who also is running as an Independent candidate in the Nov. 3 general election, said he would make sure the city had the money in place before relying on a government handout to pay for such a program.

"We need to make sure and guarantee the needs of the neighborhood are met," Harris said. "We need to be responsible for the people who live there."

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