City’s Blight Task Force to present findings, plan

The five-plus months’ work of the city Blight Task Force will culminate Wednesday with the group presenting its “comprehensive blight strategy plan.”

The session will be the fourth and final gathering of the task force, which consists of 18 members, including officials from city government, housing and human service agencies, economic development organizations and business leaders, landlords and real estate representatives.

The task force was created by Mayor Matt Pacifico, led by blight consultant Winnie Branton of Branton Strategies in Philadelphia and funded by a $32,000 grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

“Achieving voluntary compliance by owners of blighted properties, with enforcement actions for the non-compliant (is) the top goal,” stated a news release from the city on Monday.

At its most recent meeting in January, the task force listed establishment of a land bank, expansion of existing home repair assistance programs and focus on legal penalties for scofflaws as its highest priorities.

The task force wants to strike a balance between “the carrot and the stick,” Branton said at the January meeting.

“Sometimes the stick alone won’t work,” said city Community Development Director Lee Slusser, a task force member, on Monday.

A land bank can acquire blighted properties through intervention before tax sales by receiving donations and by municipal transfer.

It can also discharge liens and provide a clear title for developers.

With these actions, it can rescue properties from stagnation under indifferent or underfunded ownership.

The city has two home repair assistance programs.

One is funded by the federal HOME program and provides loans to pay up to half the cost of rehabilitation for rental units, up to about $15,000 per unit, with loans forgiven after five years if owners comply with conditions.

The other is funded by the federal Community Develop­ment Block Grant program and provides no-interest loans usually between $15,000 and $20,000 for basic repairs to owner-occupied homes — with loans to those at least 62 years old not needing to be repaid as long as those owners remain.

The programs are part of the city’s existing “carrot” strategy.

The stick includes remedial penalties based on the state’s Act 90, which allows:

— Municipalities to deny permits to property owners with serious code violations.

— Legal attachment of scofflaw assets — including homes and wages — to cover city enforcement and demolition costs.

— Criminal charges against scofflaws, if the district attorney agrees.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Pacifico will name a 10-member Action Team that will put the strategies in the plan into practice.

The task force conducted “a neat collaborative process” that brought together a wide array of stakeholders, Slusser said.

“The mayor cast a really wide net,” he said.

The mayor’s approach led to the sharing of complementary perspectives — such as the social service realization that encouragement needs to be part of the mix, along with penalties, Slusser said.

“I look forward to getting feedback from the community,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.


What: Altoona Blight Task Force public meeting

Where: Devorris Downtown Center, 1431 12th Ave.

When: 5 p.m. Wednesday

Why: Presentation of comprehensive blight strategy plan