Earth Matters: Several causes can bring blight right to our doorstep

I stood aghast as I looked at the large container of trash near the front door. Inside the house, things didn’t look much better. A quarter of the front porch floor was gone, and the basement floor below was covered in more trash. Five workers were bringing out what appeared to be a year’s worth of trash, an armful at a time.

This was not an abandoned house in Detroit, a bombed-out building in Gaza or a shanty in Sudan. This was a house within a 20-minute drive of almost everyone reading this week’s column.

Every day, we hear more bad news about the world’s most desperate – the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, the endless conflicts in the Mideast, the premature death of malnourished children in Haiti. We come to think that horrid living conditions should be restricted to the poorest parts of the world.

Yet we find them far too frequently much closer to home. Such blight is not restricted to urban communities, either. Rural places can be cursed with the same problems. They are sometimes more difficult to see in rural communities since larger properties may allow the problems to be hidden from plain view. But they are still there.

It would seem that the solutions to these dreadful situations should be within our grasp. But changing people’s minds or their habits is never easy. A host of practical and legal barriers further complicate the struggle.

* Absentee landlords are much less responsive to cleaning up messes, many of them realizing that they are insulated from legal action because they are so far from the problem. Most believe that local governments will never spend the time or resources necessary to hold them responsible for their lack of action.

* Local slumlords, though a small minority of rental property owners, can be a source of great difficulty. Several municipalities now have rental inspection programs to address the problems created by both slumlords and absentee property owners. They have made a difference, but the worst offenders still look for ways to circumvent their requirements.

* Tax delinquent properties are frequently left to deteriorate since they are (at least from a practical standpoint) not really owned by anyone. To make matters worse, when a property becomes tied up in court, years can sometimes pass before the legal mess is untangled.

* Renters’ apathy can make even a responsible landlord look bad. Irresponsible, slovenly tenants can wreck a property in short order. Couple a slob with a slumlord, and your worst fears are often realized.

* A lack of trash service leads to the massive accumulations of trash that are often the first step in property decay. Despite several dozen responsible trash haulers and the best enforcement efforts of many municipalities, thousands in Blair County do not have regular trash service. Without regular collection, many are tempted to pile it up or dump it in the nearest business waste container.

The man-made environment can be a beautiful and pleasant place or a blighted and ugly thing from which we want to escape. Together, we have to figure out how to make it the former.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ writes about environmental issues every other Saturday. Next time, he’ll look at a soon-to-be released report by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, examining some of the struggles discussed in this week’s column and offering some recommendations to address them.