The Rise of Vacancy - Part VI The Region (by Jeffery Fraser and Matt Stroud)


The television ad that launched the Levi’s jeans “Go forth” campaign starred Braddock as a bleak example of post-industrial decline. It opened with shots of an empty warehouse boarded with plywood and ghostly abandoned houses, windowless and strangled by brush, while a girl’s voice intoned: “A long time ago, things got broken here. People got sad and left.”

The ad, which portrayed the economically distressed Allegheny County borough as a new challenge to the American pioneering spirit, could have been filmed in several southwestern Pennsylvania municipalities and neighborhoods, where the gritty reality of widespread vacancy and blight is just as vivid.

Nine percent of the houses and apartments in the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area are vacant, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. That is better than the 11 percent national vacant housing rate and it is lower than rates found in other Rust Belt regions Pittsburgh is often compared with, such as the Cleveland MSA, where 10.6 percent of its housing is vacant.

But if such numbers suggest southwestern Pennsylvania has dodged a vacancy crisis, they are misleading. Dense pockets of vacant and blighted properties are found across the region in poor urban neighborhoods and older industrial towns, such as Braddock, that have endured decades of economic hardship.

The municipalities carrying the biggest burden of vacant and abandoned property are among the most economically fragile in the region and the least likely to have the resources at hand to do something about it.

"There's only so much we can do from inside the borough,” said Betty Esper, the mayor of Homestead, where The Waterfront, a $300 million upscale shopping and entertainment complex, has done little to ease the borough’s vacant housing rate, which stands at 22 percent. "We don't have a lot of money. Our inspector can fine people with homes that are in disrepair. But is it too late? Is it enough? Is that going to solve our problems? I don't know."

City and county governments may offer some degree of technical support to those who ask for it, most often legal and financial help to gain control of vacant, tax-delinquent properties. But help is so limited that only a small fraction of the vacant properties in boroughs, townships and city neighborhoods is being addressed.

And there is no comprehensive strategy at the regional, county or city level for dealing with the hundreds of thousands vacant structures and lots in southwestern Pennsylvania.

“Blight and abandonment has largely fallen through the cracks in terms dealing with it as a regional issue,” said Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, which last year published a comprehensive report on abandoned property in southwestern Pennsylvania.

‘Tale of two cities’

Vacancy and blight make it less likely that struggling communities will narrow the divide that separates them from more affluent neighborhoods. Almost without exception, places where vacancy rates are high also suffer from staggering population loss, weak housing markets, poor housing stock, high poverty and crime rates and other factors that make them less than desirable places in which to live.

“In my estimation, Pittsburgh is becoming a tale of two cities,” said Rob Stephany, director of the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority. “You can go to Shadyside and Point Breeze and say we are America’s Most Livable City again and people will applaud. But in Homewood, they’ll laugh.”

Concentrations of vacant housing higher than the national rate are found in every county in southwestern Pennsylvania, as well as in nearby West Virginia and Ohio communities, according to the latest U.S. Census data. And the census doesn’t count vacant lots, which in most cases greatly outnumber vacant houses and apartments.

In Beaver County, for example, 18 percent of the housing in Aliquippa is vacant. In Butler County, Slippery Rock’s vacant housing rate is 16 percent. In Monessen, Westmoreland County, it’s 17 percent. In Youngstown, Ohio, 19 percent of houses and apartments are vacant. Along the Ohio River in Tyler County, W.Va., 23 percent of the housing is vacant. And in the City of Pittsburgh, 28 percent of the housing in its Homewood neighborhood and 26 percent of the housing in Larimer is vacant.

One of the most striking examples of concentrated vacancy and blight is the Monongahela River valley. The exodus that followed the collapse of the steel industry some three decades ago has left its communities littered with empty houses and lots.

More than 24 percent of the housing in Braddock is vacant or abandoned, as is 21 percent of Duquesne’s and 20 percent of Clairton’s. In Donora, Washington County, 23 percent of the available houses and apartments are vacant.

A shrinking valley

“People have left the area. Overwhelmingly, they’ve left,” said Doug Van Haitsma, housing and real estate director for the Mon Valley Initiative, an economic development coalition whose membership includes volunteer-driven community development corporations in three counties touched by the Monongahela River and its tributaries.

Braddock’s population has fallen to 2,100 people, according to the latest U.S. Census. That is a 90 percent decline since 1920, when the steel town was booming and its population density rivaled that of Manhattan.

The borough continued to lose population over the past decade, despite having U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson Works, one of the valley’s few remaining steel mills, in its backyard.

Such trends underscore the difficulties Mon Valley communities with high vacancy rates face as they struggle to recover. “At the end of the day, there aren’t a lot of people who want to live in an industrial setting,” said Richard Ranii, manager of the Housing and Human Services Division of the Allegheny County Economic Development Department. “We used to, but not anymore.”

Other challenges include the distance communities in the Mon Valley are from Pittsburgh and its jobs, universities, hospitals and cultural amenities. Crime rates and struggling school districts repel new homebuyers who have the means to settle in more affluent areas. And demand has waned for much of the valley’s housing stock, vacant or otherwise, particularly the thousands of aging houses built shoulder-to-shoulder on narrow lots.

“One of the problems is that as a society we’ve decided that what we used to live in isn’t adequate anymore,” Ranii said. “A 20- or 30-foot-wide-lot with a three-bedroom home on it and no garage isn’t acceptable anymore by our standards of living.”

Municipalities in the Mon Valley have little choice but to tailor recovery plans to fit their downsized populations. And the clutter of vacant properties that have been left behind can, under the right circumstances, encourage stronger housing markets. Tearing down vacant houses to allow for wider, more marketable tracts is one example. Turning empty lots into greenways, parks, community gardens and other green space that studies show boost home values is another.

“What we've realized is that there's no need to try to even come close to maintaining the density that boroughs like Homestead experienced in the Forties and Fifties," said Van Haitsma. "So we try to consolidate properties, fix up houses where we can and tear down houses when we're able to do so, so people will feel safer and feel like there's a reason to live here.”

The Mon Valley Initiative helped community development corporations in Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland counties rehabilitate or build nearly 400 houses and apartments. “But building new houses is an expensive way to stabilize communities,” he said. “So we’re looking into options like urban agriculture to try and tackle the problem in other ways.”

In Braddock, Mayor John Fetterman’s high-profile approach to revitalization embraces its downsized population and more than 250 vacant structures as opportunities to reinvent the borough as a smaller, greener, art-minded place that appeals to the kind of youthful urban pioneers depicted in the Levi’s jeans ads -- artists and anyone else who “wants to be part of a community and wants to innovate.”

Empty buildings have been turned into artist studios, and an abandoned car dealership was remade into a furniture maker’s shop. A neglected church was restored as a community center. And 10 acres of vacant lots were reclaimed for organic herb and vegetable farming.

A matter of scale

But for every blighted property recovered in a high-vacancy neighborhood or municipality, several hundred – in Pittsburgh’s case, thousands – remain as eyesores, safety hazards and a drag on real estate markets and housing values. In the Pittsburgh MSA, more than 100,400 houses alone are vacant.

In counties and cities that act to take control of vacant and blighted properties, the legal processes they use sparingly are not intended to tackle vacancy on a large scale.

Butler County was one of the first to use the state’s recent conservatorship law against neglectful property owners instead of condemning structures in advanced stages of decay. The law allows a court-appointed conservator to take a troublesome property, rehabilitate or demolish it and recover the cost of doing so from the owner or by selling the property to someone else.

"If I condemn it, all that means is the owner still owns it with more debt. The taxes are still unpaid; the grass is still uncut,” said Perry O'Malley, executive director of Butler County's Housing and Redevelopment Authority. “Through conservatorship, I can take that property, demolish the building on it and find a new use for it. The new owner gets clear title. The old owner maintains all the liens.

“But if you have a property that is of no use to anybody, conservatorship doesn't make sense."

Few municipalities in the region even have programs or strategies that specifically deal with turning vacant and blighted property into something more than a community liability, according to Sustainable Pittsburgh’s recent survey of municipal officials in 10 southwestern Pennsylvania counties.

Only 25 percent of the more than 100 municipalities that responded to the survey reported having such programs. And less than one-third keep an inventory of vacant properties that would enable them to know how many they have. “Many don’t have the technology and wherewithal to do it,” said Sustainable Pittsburgh’s Gould.

If southwestern Pennsylvania municipalities ever decide to create a regional inventory of vacant property, they won’t have to look far for a model. The University of Pittsburgh University Center for Social and Urban Research runs one of the most comprehensive metropolitan-area property information systems in the nation. For longer than a decade, it has mined dozens of sources to report up-to-date, detailed – even street-specific – information on topics that include vacancy, foreclosures, tax delinquency and property ownership in every city neighborhood.

Other pockets of expertise are surfacing. The city Urban Redevelopment Authority and community organizations, such as East Liberty Community Development Corp., have years of experience trying save their neighborhoods from blight. The city’s Land Recycling Task Force and Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, a coalition of community organizations, has for several years been investigating how to attack vacancy on a scale large enough to make a difference that neighborhood residents and housing markets notice.

And although Sustainable Pittsburgh found that only a quarter of the municipalities surveyed have programs that deal with vacancy, another 27 percent reported that they have begun to work on green strategies and other ways to turn vacancy and blight into something that will add value to their community and the lives of those who live there.

“You have to look at vacant and abandoned property as an opportunity,” said Kim Graziani, vice president of capacity building at the Center for Community Progress, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that specializes in vacant property issues. “Because the scale of this issue is so great in some neighborhoods that if you look at it as just a problem it’s too daunting.”

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