By Ziggy Edwards
When J. “Mac” McCafferty tried to buy an abandoned lot near the Carrick bar he owned at the time, the experience was so discouraging it motivated him to run for Pittsburgh City Council’s District 5 seat last year.
“I was cutting the weeds, and the city told me I was trespassing,” Mr. McCafferty recounted during a March 6 phone call. “They should be beating the bushes to find people to take on these properties.”
It’s a common dilemma for residents across the city: Neglected property in their neighborhood causes problems, but to gain control of it they have to cut through a Gordian knot of red tape. The city owns some of these properties. Others, like the lot Mr. McCafferty tried to buy, belong to absent and inactive private owners. Distressed private properties often have high back taxes that discourage buyers.
The city and county have mechanisms in place designed to help get abandoned properties back to productive use. But Pittsburgh’s high number of abandoned properties – more than 30,000 – shows flaws in the system that are drawing increased attention from frustrated residents, community groups and real estate entrepreneurs.
Options for neighbors
All paths to addressing these properties take time. Concerned neighbors’ options depend on how involved they want to get, who owns the property, and whether the lot includes a building.
To report blight, neighbors can contact Pittsburgh’s 311 Response Center. The city may respond by sending an inspector from the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections to look at the property. Follow up with this department directly by calling (412) 255-2175. If the property is a health hazard – for example, if it has a rodent infestation—another option is to call the Allegheny County Health Department at (412) 350-4046 or use their online complaint form.
For a more hands-on approach, contact the property owner about the problems with the abandoned property. You can find the owner of a local property by entering the address in the Allegheny County Real Estate Portal at http://www2.alleghenycounty.us/RealEstate/Default.aspx. If you cannot reach the owner or if the owner wants to get help fixing the property, a neighborhood community group may have advice on how to proceed.
The most hands-on approach involves getting control of the property and fixing it yourself. Many residents lack the resources to do this on their own, so community groups and nonprofits or developers are more likely to go this route.
The glacial pace of the Pittsburgh Land Bank
City Council launched the Pittsburgh Land Bank in 2014 as a way to allow neighbors or groups to purchase and reuse properties in beneficial ways. But it has struggled to make a dent in the city’s large stock of vacant properties, operating for seven years before acquiring its first property. Still, change seems to be in store.
“It feels like the year where the Land Bank has finally, actually become a functioning land bank,” Pittsburgh Land Bank board member and City Councilor Daniel Lavelle told 90.5 WESA.
City Council has approved $7 million for the land bank to buy properties from the city, clear the titles so they can be legally sold and then move them off the city’s books. The bank is also getting tools it needs to become effective. The property purchases will be exempt from realty transfer taxes, and the Land Bank will be able to participate in conservatorship cases, which it was not able to in past years.
Fixing abandoned properties through the courts
Conservatorship has emerged as a tool for fighting blight that appeals to the land bank’s critics. A group of community organizations and real estate professionals have turned to the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act in hopes of securing control of 75 city-owned properties. This 2008 Pennsylvania law allows groups or individuals to file petitions for conservatorship in their County Common Pleas Court.
Conservatorship applies to properties with buildings that are in disrepair, dangerous and not recently occupied or purchased. The court appoints a conservator and oversees their plans and repairs.
Eventually, a conservator may become the owner or sell the property. The 2021 petitions by Wholesale Properties LLC and other groups (later consolidated into one case) are making waves because conservatorship is normally used for privately owned properties, not municipalities.
In March 2021, Pennsylvania’s Senate Democratic Policy Committee hosted a virtual hearing that examined the conservatorship law, which was last amended in 2014. PublicSource reported that Sen. Katie Muth, D-Chester, Montgomery and Berks counties said despite the law’s original intent, it “has also been criticized for taking away the due process of property owners, allowing land developers to obtain properties cheaply, making a profit and gentrifying neighborhoods in the process.”
A panel of experts at the hearing suggested ways to close loopholes that attract what Duquesne University law professor Joe Sabino Mistick called “predatory nonprofits” that transfer properties under their conservatorship to for-profit ventures.
Nonprofits do have more leeway than individual residents under the conservatorship law. For example, a resident must live within 2,000 feet of the property to qualify for conservatorship, while nonprofits based in Allegheny County can petition for conservatorship of any property in the county as long as it meets conservatorship criteria.
For now, Pittsburghers must continue to deal with distressed properties in their neighborhoods on a case-by-case basis.
Mr. McCafferty had this advice for would-be buyers of abandoned properties: “Just keep going at it. If I were younger, I would have.”
Ziggy Edwards is a resident of Four Mile Run and a regular contributor to The Homepage. She is pursuing conservatorship of a nearby property with the help of attorney Wayne Cobb II.