New Action Team tasked with blight solution

Creating a land bank on list of priorities

Christopher Cook, 38, grew up in the residential heart of Altoona, and the deterioration of the neighborhoods where he spent his childhood has left him embarrassed and sad.

As a restoration contractor, Cook has taken it upon himself to help reverse the slide into blight, thus redeeming that embarrassment and sadness, he told a small audience Wednesday at the first and final public meeting of the city’s Blight Task Force, of which Cook was a member.

In the last two years, Cook has bought 20 of the worst of the city’s couple of hundred blighted and abandoned buildings and has rehabilitated 16 of them.

He’s a type that Altoona could use more of as it gets set to act upon the Comprehensive Blight Strategy released Wednesday by the task force, created last summer by Mayor Matt Pacifico.

Incentivizing private development like Cook’s is mentioned in the new comprehensive plan, although it’s not a high-priority item for the Action Team that Pacifico named on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, much of the city’s blight problem would disappear if there were a handful of other contractors willing to do what he is doing, conceded Cook, when prodded after the meeting by a reporter.

Yet his buying, fixing and selling of blighted properties is only an avocation, separate from the restoration work with which he makes his living, he said.

Cook essentially breaks even on the buy-fix-sell effort, which requires taking care to spend less on properties than they’ll be worth when finished.

Helping to ensure that happens are the banks, which won’t lend him more than they think a property will fetch, said Cook, who learned carpentry beginning at age 11 from his great uncle and Albert Michaels, who at that time made his living buying, fixing and selling properties.

Cook is working on a former bar — most recently Lombardo’s, previously Schelleys and before that, Paul’s Tavern — at 17th Avenue and 14th Street.

He expects the building to be worth $90,000 when he’s finished, so he’s limiting his outlay to $70,000.

Action Team

The 13-member Action Team, which meets for the first time at the end of the week, will focus on the top-priority items identified by the task force: establishment of a land bank, expansion of the city’s home repair assistance programs and levying legal penalties for scofflaws.

Together, they should help prevent new blight and correct existing blight through demolition or redevelopment, according to consultant Winnie Branton, who coordinated the work of the task force.

Land banks are a critical tool, because they can intercept properties headed for tax sale and discharge liens, keeping those properties away from owners who would do nothing to help, while rendering the properties attractive to owners who — like Cook — have the resources and willingness to fix them up, according to Branton.

Discharging or eliminating the liens makes a property more attractive for rehabilitation.

Cooperation between the three property taxing bodies — the city, the county and the school district — is required for a land bank, she said.

The city’s home repair assistance programs, which help needy owner occupants and landlords upgrade their properties to code are funded with about $500,000 a year, allocated from the city’s Community Development Block Grants and HOME program, according to program director Carl Fischer.

The money comes from an annual allocation of about $1.3 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Expanding those programs may mean diverting some of that HUD money from other programs regularly funded by the city, said City Manager Marla Marcinko.

Applying legal penalties against code scofflaws would depend on the state’s Act 90.

One provision allows for legal attachment of assets, including homes and wages, which may never have been done before, Marcinko said.

Asset attachment might be an appealing option against owners who let their properties fall into ruin, having no concern for the community, while living in posh surroundings in some other community, Marcinko said.

Another provision of Act 90 allows district attorneys to charge repeat code offenders with a misdemeanor. The city would need to discuss that with the county DA’s office, Marcinko said.

The city is already using many practices identified as effective in fighting blight, Branton said.

“This is an opportunity to take (further) action in a thoughtful way,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.