The Rise of Vacancy - Part I (by Jeffery Fraser)

East Liberty Development, Inc. was still figuring out how to jump-start the housing market in the Pittsburgh neighborhood when it built 10 houses on Mellon Street across from a handful of vacant and blighted buildings. At $105,000 for three bedrooms, a bath and a half, a two-car garage and a zero-percent second mortgage for income-qualified buyers, the new homes were priced to sell.

None of them did. 

“Nobody was willing to buy on that block until we were able to tell them a good story, something concrete, about what was going to come about across the street,” said Kendall Pelling, project manager for the community development corporation. “We learned from experience that vacant and abandoned properties have a terrible impact on the housing market.”

Others are getting a similar education. Vacant and blighted properties are increasing across southwestern Pennsylvania, the state and the nation, robbing local governments of desperately needed tax revenue, consuming millions of tax dollars, eroding housing values, posing health and safety risks and complicating the already challenging job of reviving distressed neighborhoods.

In Allegheny County, a program for turning tax-delinquent vacant properties into community assets doesn’t come close to keeping pace with the rate at which properties become vacant. And the story is the same throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

In Homewood, mapping routes to get children to and from school without exposing them to mean streets littered with vacant lots and abandoned buildings is one of the first steps the Homewood Children’s Village is taking as it attempts to improve the educational outcomes and overall well-being of children in one of Pittsburgh’s most distressed neighborhoods.

In Philadelphia, one of the few studies of the price that communities pay for vacancy and blight reports that housing values fall by 6.5 percent citywide and that at least $22 million a year is drained from the city in lost tax revenue and to cover maintenance, police and fire costs.

In Flint, Mich. and Cleveland, Ohio, land banks seize thousands of vacant tax-delinquent properties using laws Pennsylvania doesn’t have, and sells, rehabilitates or tears them down following comprehensive blight redevelopment strategies that haven’t been developed in southwestern Pennsylvania.

If there is a bright side to the growing problem, it lies in the opportunity vacant properties offer to redesign neighborhoods in ways that are better suited to their down-sized populations, such as widening narrow lots found in many former industrial towns to accommodate fewer, but more marketable parcels, and turning empty lots and buildings into greenways, community gardens, recreational space and other amenities that give local housing markets more appeal.

“Any community that has blighted and abandoned properties and sees them only as a strain and a drain is undervaluing the real estate,” said Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, which last year published a comprehensive report on vacant property in southwestern Pennsylvania. “We need to be thinking about those properties as stranded economic assets.”

East Liberty Development, Inc. got the message. The new houses on Mellon Street sold after the nonprofit bought the vacant properties across the street and came up with a plan to renovate some of the vacant houses and build new ones on the other lots.

Recent Pennsylvania legislation offers municipalities, community organizations, and even residents a more expansive menu of legal options for dealing with neglectful landlords, absentee owners and the vacant and blighted properties next door.

But when dealing with tens of thousands of vacant properties, effective intervention comes down to a question of scale. And in southwestern Pennsylvania, local government attempts to combat vacancy and blight fall far short of recovering anything but a fraction of the vacant lots and houses found along city, borough and township streets.

Over the past seven years, the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program has helped put some 500 vacant, tax-delinquent properties into the hands of buyers interested in turning them into side yards, small parks and other neighborhood-friendly uses. At that rate of recovery, the program barely makes a dent.

The percentage of vacant housing in the county jumped from 6.8 percent to 9.4 percent over the past two decades – a trend experienced in every county in the region, according to U.S. Census data. More than 55,000 housing units, including apartments, stand vacant. And the Census Bureau doesn’t count vacant lots, which greatly outnumber vacant houses.

“Even if we did 1,000 properties this year – and we won’t – I would have a job for life,” said Richard Ranii, who oversees the program as manager of the Housing and Human Services Division of the Allegheny County Economic Development Department.

A creeping crisis

Shifting, aging or declining population, weak housing markets, poor housing stock, crime, underperforming schools and other factors that make some communities less than desirable places to live -- all of these factors contribute to vacancy and blight. High mortgage foreclosure rates, decimated job markets other consequences of recession have exacerbated the problem.

Antiquated tax foreclosure systems can take years to move against delinquent properties, and many accrue several years’ worth of delinquent taxes and penalties. In depressed markets, such Homewood, where the average price paid for residential property was $9,060 in 2009, back taxes and penalties can easily exceed the market value of a house, encouraging owners to ignore its upkeep or to walk away from it entirely.

“There isn’t a place I go where someone doesn’t talk about a problem property they are frustrated with,” said Irene McLaughlin, an attorney and consultant on vacant property issues for the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania and others.

More than 11 percent of the houses and apartments across the United States are vacant, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. In states hit hardest by the mortgage foreclosure crisis, the rate is much higher – 17.5 percent in Florida, for example, and 16.3 percent in Arizona.

Nine percent of the housing in the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area is vacant, up from 6.8 percent in 1990.

Cities tend to have higher concentrations of vacant property, and Pittsburgh is no exception with nearly 13 percent of its houses and apartments standing vacant. Higher rates are found in several nearby cities. The vacancy rate is 19 percent in Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio. And 15 percent of Steubenville’s housing is vacant.

Even higher concentrations are found in poor urban neighborhoods and municipalities that have endured decades of economic decline. In other words, the places shouldering the heaviest burden are the most fragile and the least likely to have the resources to do something about it.

Many pay the price

While those living on blight-ridden streets are the most directly affected, studies suggest the economic and social costs of long-standing vacancy are widely shared.

What those costs amount to in southwestern Pennsylvania is unclear. Pittsburgh’s year-old Land Recycling Task Force, planning department and others are working on an analysis of the economic impact on the city, which is expected later this year. And there is no countywide or regional accounting of the total cost of vacant property.

Philadelphia is one of the few places that examined those costs. Its study found that vacant properties reduce market values by 6.5 percent citywide and by as much as 20 percent in high-vacancy neighborhoods, resulting in an average loss in value of $8,000 for each city household. Tax-delinquent vacant properties in Philadelphia owe an estimated $70 million in back taxes, a sum that grows by $2 million every year. And vacant properties consume $20 million in city services a year, including $8 million spent on code enforcement and maintenance.

When housing values plummet, those who are hurt the most include long-time homeowners, many of them senior citizens – the very people who tend to hold together what is left of declining neighborhoods.

“We got a call last year from an elderly woman in one of those neighborhoods,” said Rob Stephany, director of the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority. “She had a $9,000 bid from a contractor to replace her roof, which had started to leak. Her next-door neighbor’s house had sold for less than that, about $7,000. Here was a responsible, salt-of-the-earth-Greatest-Generation senior citizen asking whether she should repair her roof or just ride it out. That is loss of equity.” 

Vacant and blighted properties also play a role in unraveling of the quality of life in a neighborhood and dimming the outlooks of those who live there.

For Malik Bankston, one of the more challenging aspects taking control of vacant properties in Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood and then creating gardens, parks and a safer and more vibrant place to live was convincing residents that it could be done. “It was tough getting a conversation going,” said the Kingsley Center director. “For so long, the neighborhood watched a deliberate kind of disinvestment play out, which resulted in us having one of the highest incidence of vacant and blighted property.”

More than 42 percent of the lots, houses and buildings in Larimer are unoccupied. And, like most neighborhoods with high rates of vacant and blighted property, crime rates are higher than citywide averages – in Larimer’s case, 30-50 percent higher.

In Homewood, where nearly 44 percent of the lots and 28 percent of the houses are vacant, finding ways for school children to avoid them is a priority of the Homewood Children’s Village, which is based on a program in New York’s Harlem neighborhood that concentrates community support and services on mending the social fabric and improving children’s outcomes.

“The impact of vacant and abandoned properties on kids is a real concern,” said John Wallace, a University of Pittsburgh associate professor of social work who spent several years planning the Homewood initiative. “These properties are risk factors for crime, they’re a safety risk and they’re a health risk.”

The “broken window” theory argues that is not by coincidence. The theory, introduced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, has become widely accepted by law enforcement. It suggests that vacant and blighted houses, abandoned cars and other visible evidence of neglect send the signal that nobody cares, erode community controls and leave neighborhoods more vulnerable to crime.

Southwestern Pennsylvania police departments don’t track the relationship between crime and vacant property. And the few local studies that looked at the relationship offer contradictory, inconclusive findings.

Evidence elsewhere suggests the relationship is not benign. Philadelphia spends close to $6 million a year on police and fire calls to vacant properties. A study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago reported violent crime rates in the city rose 2.3 percent with every 0.01 percent increase in mortgage foreclosures. After a sharp rise in foreclosures and vacancy, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina analyzed its records and found that high neighborhood foreclosure rates predicted higher crime rates, including violent crime, which rose steadily in those neighborhoods, but stayed much lower in places with few foreclosures.

Whether residents of neighborhoods with a high percentage of vacant, boarded-up stores and homes, litter and graffiti have a higher incidence of disease and premature death was a question RAND researchers looked at in 2003. Even after controlling for poverty, they found that those who live in deteriorating neighborhoods have higher rates of premature death and death by cardiovascular disease and homicide than people in neighborhoods that are not in decline.

That was not the only troubling effect they noted. In neighborhoods where residents were seen as willing to work toward a common good, the rate of premature deaths was lower. The one exception was in neighborhoods with a high number of vacant homes and other signs of decline, where the willingness of residents to help out made no difference.

Liabilities to assets

The flip side of vacant and blighted properties is that under the right circumstances they can be used to improve conditions in the neighborhoods they helped lead down a path of decline. In southwestern Pennsylvania, both public and private sector interest in reclaiming vacant property to add elbowroom and a little green to crowded urban neighborhoods is growing.

“With a lot of liabilities, your only option is to eliminate or reduce them. To be able to turn a liability into a asset is a unique opportunity,” said Frederick Thieman, executive director of the Buhl Foundation, which funded the Sustainable Pittsburgh report on vacant property in southwestern Pennsylvania. “Vacant property provides us with such an opportunity.”

Demolition is a common municipal response to abandoned houses. Clarksburg. W.Va. took a low-interest state loan to finance a campaign against the blight that had accumulated during decades of economic decline, tearing down nearly 300 homes. More than half of the 900 vacant houses acquired by a public land bank in Cuyahoga County, Ohio last year have been razed.

“It’s like cleaning the cancer cells out of the body so the rest can be healthy,” said Frank Ford, vice president for research and development at Neighborhood Progress, Inc., a Cleveland neighborhood development agency. “It’s hard for me to say that. Like most of my colleagues, I was a preservationist 20 years ago. We rehabbed houses. That’s not feasible now. The market isn’t going to come back until we clear out the bad stuff and allow it to come back.”

“Greening” vacant lots is an increasingly popular strategy for helping turn around distressed neighborhoods.

In Pittsburgh, the city’s Green Up Pittsburgh program has put hundreds of vacant lots in the hands of community groups and residents who use them as neighborhood green spaces and side yards. Before Larimer residents decided to reinvent themselves as a green community, nonprofits used vacant lots to introduce them to ideas such as community gardens and urban farming. And in Homewood, a community group that began gardening vacant lots a decade ago established its own urban landscaping company and youth training program.

But before any house is rehabilitated or lot seeded with sunflowers, those interested in doing the work must take title of the property, which can be a time-consuming and costly process. In some cases, their local government lends them a hand.

Allegheny County, for example, helps municipalities and others acquire vacant properties through eminent domain-like powers granted in the state’s Urban Redevelopment Authority law and pays for clearing the title, which costs about $3,000.

And Pittsburgh takes tax-delinquent properties through treasurer’s sales, “quiets” the titles and holds them in its land reserve until community groups arrange financing to buy them. But financial and staffing constraints cap acquisitions at 300 properties a year, which represents about 1.5 percent of the vacant houses and lots in the city.

Pennsylvania added a number of legal tools to help combat vacancy and blight in recent years. The state’s new conservatorship act, for example, allows community groups and others to petition courts to appoint a third party to take temporary possession of a blighted property, rehabilitate or demolish it, and then offer the property back to the owner for the cost of the work done or sell it under court supervision to someone else.

But the consensus best practice for tackling vacant property on a large scale is not available in Pennsylvania. Genesee County, Mich. and Cuyahoga County in Ohio are showing how land banking and property tax reform can be used across entire counties to take control of thousands of vacant tax-delinquent properties, keep them out the hands of slumlords and speculators and manage them as community assets.

In June, legislation to empower land banks was introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by state Rep. John Taylor (R-Philadelphia). The bill, which received the endorsement of Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, is under consideration in the House Urban Affairs Committee.

But costs are an issue. Genesee County and other land banks are able to recover much, if not all, of their operating costs through sales and the collection tax liens and penalties.

Start-up costs are another matter. While a land bank in Pittsburgh is estimated to cost $3.7 million a year to operate, it could take another $15 million to clear the titles of the more than 7,500 vacant properties in the city’s inventory, according to an unpublished report prepared for the city Land Recycling Task Force.

Spending that kind of money makes many municipal officials nervous, particularly when most face serious budget shortfalls. “We run into that all of the time,” said Dan Kildee, a former Genesee County treasurer who now directs the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit that specializes in vacant property issues. “But it ignores the costs taxpayers already pay for vacant property and abandonment. You have to measure the cost of change against the cost of the current path that we’re on. Anybody who argues that the current path we’re on is the right one isn’t examining the full cost of vacant and abandoned property.”

(Matt Stroud of PittsburghTODAY.org contributed to the reporting for this article).

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A Feathered indicator of Region's Health (by Jim Bonner and John Craig)

What does a Hairy Woodpecker have in common with burglaries, museum attendance, hours lost commuting on heavily-used highways, smoking rates and an annual budget deficit in Uniontown?  This Woodpecker's population numbers are now part of the information tracked by the Regional Indicator project.

We are pleased to announce that the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (ASWP) will provide a new environmental measure -- using information from the annual Christmas Bird Count to compare avian numbers in cities across the United States.

The count results will be used to measure changes to birdlife that may indicate wider environmental factors.

According to Jim Bonner, ASWP's Executive Director, the numbers of Hairy Woodpecker may be viewed as a mirror of regional environmental health. “The birds in our backyards are living in an environment that’s constantly changing due to the influence of people. By measuring bird populations, we can determine how well they are able to adapt and survive in certain areas, giving us an idea of how healthy our environment really is.”

“Often, less is more in our indicator work,” added Indicator Program Director, John Craig.  “I would not want to over sell the significance of being home to a robust population of Hairy Woodpeckers or American Goldfinches, but being able to document the fact that our region is becoming a more hospitable (or inhospitable) place for some of the Earth’s creatures can be significant in the long run."

Check out our other complementary environmental indicators:  daily and annual reports on air quality and soon-to-be-published reports on the  Ohio River water quality.

Pittsburgh has been chosen as the North American host for the 2010 World Environment Day.  About.com writer Larry West explains in his article, "If Pittsburgh strikes you as an odd choice to host a high-profile environmental event, perhaps you still associate Pittsburgh with steel factories belching smoke or, later, as the de facto capital of the Rust Belt when those factories started to close. If so, you've missed Pittsburgh's transformation from an industrial city to a leader in green technology and sustainability."

View Cooper's Hawks, American Goldfinches, and Hairy Woodpeckers.

About the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania

Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania works to inspire and educate the people of Southwestern Pennsylvania to be respectful stewards of the natural world. Our locations at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve (Fox Chapel, Allegheny County) and Todd Nature Reserve (Sarver, Butler County) encourage lifelong environmental learning via 420 unspoiled acres, 10 miles of hiking trails, educational and outreach programs, and the Native Plant Center. www.aswp.org or 412-963-6100.

One Place at One Time (by John G. Craig Jr.)

Most indicator programs issue reports, more often than not bi-annually. Pittsburgh Indicators depends on a web site that is updated every time new data become available with the result that it is changing weekly. An unfortunate by-product of this important emphasis on timely information is a lack of appreciation of the volume and comprehensiveness of information available on www.pittsburghtoday.org.

Thanks to the magazine Pittsburgh Quarterly and the Pittsburgh Foundation, which have supported indicator work since its inception, a new 20-page report has been made available in the magazine's winter issue that addresses the problem. It does so by pulling together an overview of all the data available in topic areas and accompanying it with explanatory material on the significance of particular indictors.

There is also information on the organizational structure of Pittsburgh Indicators as well as brief essays from experts in various areas of Pittsburgh life on why they are involved in the project and why particular information is worth paying attention to.

To view the entire article click here, to get a hard copy of the report pick up a copy of the magazine.

The indicator report is presented in a format that permits its easy separation from the rest of the publication, permitting its retention as a separate piece of reference and reading material. As always, all criticism, proposed improvements for the web site and its content and the direction of the project are particularly welcome in this Forum.

Misleading Headlines on Air Quality (by Harold D. Miller)

Well, there they go again. The American Lung Association (ALA), with more interest in sensational headlines than accurate research and information, has released its 2008 "State of the Air" report claiming that Pittsburgh is the "most polluted city" in the country for particle pollution (what is popularly called soot).

And the local and national news media dutifully made it front-page headlines, since what a "new study" says is often more important than what the truth really is.

The ALA's rankings are based on the unusually high readings at a single monitor in the Mon Valley near the Clairton Coke Works called the Liberty Monitor. If you want to see how unusual the Liberty Monitor is, go to the charts on the PittsburghToday website, where the maximum readings at every PM2.5 monitor in the region are reported. None of the news articles have bothered to report that the pollution readings at the Liberty Monitor are nearly double the readings at any other pollution monitor in the entire region, and so any ranking based on that monitor is not really representative of what most people in the region are breathing.

The Liberty monitor is in Liberty Borough, not in the City of Pittsburgh. Yet the ALA uses this monitor to rank "Pittsburgh" as the dirtiest "city" in the country. (ALA has a separate ranking for counties, where Allegheny County ranks #1, so it could easily have distinguished the City if it wanted to.) As you can see in the chart on PittsburghToday.org, the highest monitor in the City of Pittsburgh has pollution levels only half as high as the Liberty Monitor.

In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has officially said that the pollution measured at the Liberty Monitor isn't related to the air quality that people in Pittsburgh or the rest of the region are breathing. The area surrounding the Liberty Monitor and the monitor in North Braddock were designated by EPA in 2006 as a different air quality attainment region than the rest of the Pittsburgh Region. That means that if ALA wants to use the air quality readings at the Liberty Monitor to rank something as #1 in the country, it should rank the Mon Valley as #1, not "Pittsburgh."

Now, the fact that the Pittsburgh Region doesn't really have the worst air quality in the country doesn't mean that it doesn't have a problem. In fact, as documented on PittsburghToday, the average level of PM2.5 (soot) pollution in our region is higher than most comparable regions. So we do have a serious air quality problem in our region, and it's not just in the Mon Valley.

But then the obvious question is: what's causing it? And that's where the ALA and our local media again fail to give the really important information: the high levels of soot outside of the Mon Valley are not being caused by pollution sources in the region, but by sources in upwind states. Studies done by Carnegie Mellon show that up to 80% of the particulate matter pollution in southwestern Pennsylvania is caused by pollution sources in states to the west and south, not by sources in southwestern Pennsylvania. Even if we were to shut down every power plant in our region, idled every car, etc., we would still have high levels of soot in the air here.  In fact, the charts on PittsburghToday.org show that pollution levels upwind in Ohio and West Virginia are as high or higher than in southwestern PA.

So when the ALA ranks Pittsburgh as having high pollution, but gives low rankings to the regions that are causing the pollution, it's blaming the victim. And while the ALA may think that its sensationalistic reporting will help, blaming downwind regions like our may actually make it harder to insure that the multi-state pollution controls that are essential for pollution reduction are implemented and enforced.

Act, don’t wait, for better air quality (by Granger Morgan)

Roughly a third of America's emissions of the carbon dioxide that causes climate change comes from cars and trucks. The technology exists today to dramatically reduce these emissions and, with a little research, even greater reductions could be achieved.


The leaders of the U.S. auto industry don't want to do that. They are much happier continuing to sell gas guzzlers while American men and women die in foreign lands to protect our oil supplies in the Middle East, while Saudi oil millionaires slip money to terrorist groups, and while a motor-mouth populist in Venezuela uses oil revenues to promote anti-American activities across Latin America.


Early in President Bush's first term the American people were deceived with the mirage of hydrogen vehicles that soon would make automobiles pollution-free. Perhaps by late this century they will. In the meantime, the promise of a perfect hydrogen future was used as a smoke screen to help the auto industry avoid implementing the many fuel- and energy-saving technologies that are on the shelf today.


Under the leadership of its Republican governor, California decided it was time to stop stalling and get on with cleaning up the vehicles sold within its borders. While California is taking the lead, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and eight other states plan to adopt any new tighter standard that California develops, as they have in the past. Governors in four additional states say they propose to do the same. These 17 states make up roughly half of the U.S. market for automobiles.


In addition to tighter mileage standards, California has been developing a low-carbon fuel standard that will encourage a wide variety of innovative activities. Examples include ethanol made from cellulose (wood and grass, not corn and other food crops) and hybrid electric vehicles that can be plugged in at night and charged with power from wind and other  sources that do not emit carbon dioxide. These vehicles would make possible emissions-free commuting.


Congress has finally gotten the message. Last week, for the first time in 22 years, it voted to tighten CAFE, the federal fuel-economy standards for auto makers. Seeing the writing on the bipartisan wall, President Bush signed the bill. But the timeline this bill lays out is slower, and the reduction targets lower, than what California, Pennsylvania and 15 other states already plan to achieve.


Late last Wednesday (12/19) after all the evening television news shows had signed off, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson announced that, contrary to the advice of much of his staff, he was going to block California's effort to tighten its auto-emissions standards.


California has always led the nation in setting tough standards, which have then spread across the country. The only requirement has been that the state ask the EPA for approval - which in the past has always been granted. But in what appears to be an effort by the Administration to help the U.S. auto industry do as little as possible as late as possible, Mr. Johnson argued on Wednesday that he was turning down California's proposals in order to avoid a "confusing patchwork of state rules."


Baloney! Under the terms of the Clean Air Act there are only two rules, the EPA rules and the more stringent California rules. States adopt one or the other. By attempting to block California's proposal, the Bush administration is abandoning any pretense of global leadership by refusing to provide incentives for U.S. inventors and industry to develop products that will better compete in the global marketplace.


With the mirage of hydrogen faded and Congress moving to tighten fuel-economy standards, this decision by the Administration is simply an effort to make sure that any progress we make in de-carbonizing the U.S. auto fleet and overcoming our addiction to foreign oil will take as long as possible.


California already has announced that it will sue the EPA. Pennsylvania and other states plan to join the effort.


The smart money is on the EPA decision being overturned - the administration and the auto industry already have lost three major court cases on carbon-dioxide and motor-vehicle regulations this year. But lawsuits take time, so Mr. Johnson has bought the administration's friends in the oil and auto industries a few more years of doing as little as possible.


Meanwhile, you can be confident that foreign manufacturers like Toyota, which years ago saw the need for cleaner cars and hit the market with hybrids while the U.S. industry stalled and talked of hydrogen, will be innovating rapidly so that when the inevitable tightening of fuel-economy standards does occur, they will be ready to compete, further eroding the market strength of the once dominant U.S. auto industry.


If the EPA's decision to block California standards holds up for the next few years, new gas-guzzling American-made cars will continue to emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere for more than 100 years. Those emissions will accelerate the warming of the climate, melt polar ice and contribute to more frequent droughts, while our oil dependency will continue to fund oppressive regimes in the Middle East, building an even more negative legacy for our grandchildren.


Dr. Granger Morgan is head of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and one of the founding members of the regional indicator project and architects of its environmental indicators on air quality. This piece was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12/23/07 (granger.morgan@andrew.cmu.edu)

Cleaner Air, But Not Clean Enough (by Harold Miller)

One of the great environmental success stories of the 20th Century can be seen out of any window in Pittsburgh – the dramatic improvement in air quality that helped transform the “Smoky City” into the “Most Livable City in America.”

Although there is no question that air quality here is much better than it was 60 years ago, how does our air quality today compare to other regions?

The American Lung Association claims that the Pittsburgh Region’s air quality is the second worst in the country. However, their methodology is misleading, because it is based on the unusually high PM2.5 readings at the air pollution monitors in Liberty Borough and Clairton. (PM2.5 consists of soot particles less than 2.5 microns in size, which can cause heart and lung damage.) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized that these monitors were not representative of the air quality in the rest of our region, so it designated that portion of the Mon Valley as a separate non-attainment area for PM2.5 pollution.

Much better measures of air quality have been developed by the Pittsburgh Regional Indicators Project (http://www.pittsburghtoday.org/). They average the readings from all of the pollution monitors in the region to determine the air quality that the majority of regional residents are breathing.


These new indicators show that not only are the average PM2.5 levels in the Pittsburgh Region high, they were the 5th worst among the top 40 regions in the country in 2006. (They were the 4th worst in both 2005 and 2004.) Only Atlanta, Charlotte, Los Angeles, and Riverside, California had worse average PM2.5 levels than Pittsburgh in 2006.

In other words, most of us in the Pittsburgh Region are being affected by high levels of PM2.5, and our air quality is worse than in most other large regions. That’s a health problem and a competitiveness problem that we need to address.

A second major type of air pollution is ground-level ozone, often called smog, which is a lung irritant and also affects agriculture. The Pittsburgh Region compares more favorably to other regions on ozone. We ranked 23rd out of the top 40 regions (with #1 being the worst air quality) on average ozone levels in 2006. EPA had planned to redesignate southwestern Pennsylvania as an attainment area for ozone because of improved ozone levels over the past several years, but unfortunately, high levels of ozone that occurred during August of 2007 will likely cause us to remain in nonattainment status. (EPA is also planning to tighten the ozone standard, which would return the region to nonattainment status anyway.)

Pollution problems aren’t limited to the 10-county southwestern Pennsylvania region, though. PM2.5 levels across the border in West Virginia and Ohio are equally bad, and ozone levels there are slightly worse.

What’s causing high levels of particulate and ozone pollution across the entire tri-state region? Power plants, industries, automobiles, and even wood stoves are contributors. However, unlike the smoke that polluted our air in the past, the sources of ozone and PM2.5 can be located many miles away. Studies conducted in the mid 1990s showed that a significant portion of the ozone here was being caused by pollution sources in upwind states. More recently, research done at Carnegie Mellon University found that as much as 80% of the PM2.5 pollution in our region was coming from pollution sources in upwind states.

This means that although we need to reduce emissions here, we can’t make our air clean enough all by ourselves. And if we try to tighten pollution controls here unilaterally, we’ll just make ourselves economically uncompetitive as well as environmentally uncompetitive.

A multi-state solution is needed. EPA’s Clean Air Interstate Rule, adopted in 2005, is designed to reduce emissions in 28 states in the eastern U.S., and is projected to bring southwestern Pennsylvania into attainment for both PM2.5 and ozone by 2010.

Once it’s fully implemented, we’ll all breathe easier.

Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday, October 7, 2007 by Harold Miller, President of Future Strategies LLC, a consulting firm specializing in analysis, strategy, and communication.  Now available on the Pittsburgh's Future weblog.  Miller works as a consultant to the Pittsburgh Regional Indicators Consortium and coordinated development of its recently published air quality indicators.