The late George Carlin once quipped that “Frisbeetarianism is the belief that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck.” When homeowners die, or are foreclosed on, or just abandon their properties, their houses — much like souls — do get stuck. But not on the roof.
When owners have moved on, be it to another life or another state, their real estate often gets stuck right where it always was. In many cases, nobody wants it. And even when somebody does want it, in many cases, nobody can figure out who actually owns it.
In Pennsylvania, a quasi-medieval commonwealth where property rights reign supreme, legislators from the state’s urban centers and its rural hinterlands are reaching across the aisle to devise legislative solutions to the growing problem of blight.
In a recent State Senate hearing, Liz Hersh of the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance testified that “throughout [Pennsylvania] 300,000 buildings stand vacant, including 1,591 in Altoona, 932 in Lebanon, and 2,278 in Wilkes-Barre. Another 35,000 are vacant in Philadelphia and almost 19,000 in Pittsburgh.”
These numbers demonstrate that blight isn’t just an urban problem. If only 35,000 structures are vacant in Pennsylvania’s one major urban center, and 19,000 in its other, a preponderance of those 300,000 vacant structures must be in Pennsylvania’s small cities and towns.
The National Vacant Properties Campaign sums up the myriad reasons why vacant properties must be reclaimed, including the promotion of community development, civic engagement, public safety, environmental responsibility, and smart growth — and to top it all off, a possible increase in tax revenue for municipalities.
In response to the sheer number of vacant properties in Pennsylvania, and the necessity of reclaiming them, comes SB 1291 (proposed by State Sen. Eachus of Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania). A dizzying array of tools to fight blight lay within HB 2455 and its accompanying omnibus bill, SB 1291
One of the most prominent of these is “conservatorship,” a process by which authorized entities can improve vacant properties and file a lien against them for costs incurred. Other states refer to this process as receivership, but it seems Pennsylvania is skittish about legislating a process whose name implies that property will change hands through means other than sale on the open market. In Ohio, receivership often goes one step further, with municipal authorites foreclosing upon these properties when their absentee owners fail to fulfill the receiver’s liens.
Hersh’s testimony and the Pottsville, Pa. Republican Herald together offer a picture of some of the bill’s other tools:
- Requiring property owners to bring properties with serious code violations into compliance before they can obtain any local or state permits for any other property in the state.
- Requiring property owners with blighted conditions to pay local costs of demolition, by giving the municipality legal authority to pursue the property owner’s financial assets.
- Clarifying who owns properties if they are in corporate ownership.
- Requiring mortgage lenders to maintain properties, to prevent properties from becoming blighted.
- Educating the state’s judiciary (including district justices) on enforcement of the legislation.
- Giving redevelopment authorities more ability to assist municipalities with blight remediation.
- Creating a state database offering information about offenders, funded by a surcharge on code violations.
- Allowing Pennsylvania authorities to extradite out-of-state property owners who face property-related charges.
- Providing for grants to increase enforcement of codes and fund more acquisition, condemnation, and demolition of nuisance properties.
- Ensuring that blighted, abandoned properties sold at tax sale would be redeveloped.
- Prohibiting insurers from refusing to issue or renew a policy on the basis of conditions of surrounding properties.
- Allowing counties to establish specialized courts to focus a judge’s expertise on code enforcement and related matters.
As one would expect, the private sector offers dissent. A gang of irate realtors opposes this legislation almost as a matter of principle, insisting that existing blight legislation is sufficient.
Granted, SB 1291 certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s a start — and it’s about time the force of government got behind efforts to reinvest in Pennsylvania’s older communities. Blight isn’t just limited to inner cities, and the wide variety of Republicans and Democrats from urban, rural, and suburban districts shows that abandoned properties are of concern to constituents everywhere.
Hopefully the Pennsylvania General Assembly can collaborate to grant SB 1291 the swift passage it deserves — otherwise its next problem may be some vacant seats. If Republican State Rep. Mark Mustio of Pittsburgh’s exurbs has his way, Pennsylvania’s full-time legislature — America’s largest and second highest-paid — will shrink by some 52 offices.