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City’s fight against blight begins

Task force looks to halt decay

For years, the heart of Altoona’s blight-fighting program has been the demolition of derelict homes — with about 470 taken down since 1990.

A potential theme that emerged from the first meeting of the city’s new Blight Task Force Tuesday was an emphasis on halting decay before such demolition becomes inevitable.

Demolition should be used sparingly, said City Manager Marla Marcinko, one of 18 members of the group, which includes officials from various city departments, local organizations, agencies and businesses, plus two at-large residents.

Rather than demolishing homes, the city would do better to find ways to get those homes repaired by legally prodding unwilling owners, financially helping owners who lack the money or getting the homes conveyed to people with the money, skill and willingness to make repairs, according to task force members.

But it won’t be simple, and each case needs to be handled according to its own circumstances, Marcinko said.

A fair amount is already being done.

The city recently adopted a new method of legally nudging owners who refuse to comply with code requirements by sending letters referencing Act 90, which gives municipalities the right to attach the owners’ assets — including bank accounts and even their homes — to compel them to make repairs.

For years, the city has helped those with low-to-moderate incomes with federal money for rehabilitation of single-family dwellings and rental housing.

About four times as many homes have been rehabbed through those programs than have been demolished by the city, said Lee Slusser, task force member and city community development director.

The city could further help needy residents by partnering with community organizations, including churches and student groups, for monetary or other kinds of assistance, task force members suggested.

Tax sales for tax-delinquent properties and sheriff’s sales for properties on foreclosed properties are the traditional way of conveying properties to new owners, although it can take a long time, leading to further deterioration — and sometimes the new owners lack the wherewithal or willingness to do needed repairs.

One of the major disincentives for timely investment in deteriorating properties is accumulation of unpaid taxes, Marcinko said.

Properties in the first stage of the tax sale process — the “upset sale,” carry all their liens, including those unpaid taxes.

When they reach the next stage, judicial sale, most liens, including local property taxes, disappear, and investors often find the deals attractive.

But by that time, houses may be highly deteriorated.

The final stage is the repository — the graveyard for delinquent properties, according to consultant and task force facilitator Winnie Branton.

Buyers must post bond

To help ensure against irresponsible buyers of repository properties, the city recently enacted a policy that requires Blair County to demand a bond to ensure those buyers will make the necessary repairs.

With bank foreclosures, the desirable outcome is a responsible individual or firm that pays a bargain price but who renovates, then flips the property, one member said.

Under the rules for the session, comments cannot be attributed to a specific task force member without that person’s permission.

Until 2008, the city acquired blighted properties before demolition.

Since then, to save time and money, the city has demolished homes without acquiring the properties, citing a clause in the International Property Maintenance Code to alleviate health and safety threats.

It has proven to be more efficient, and it has allowed for more demolitions, while relieving the city of the legal responsibility for caring for the resultant vacant lots.

But it still leaves those lots, the titles for which may be in the name of deceased persons, absentee owners or owners with no interest in maintaining the lots.

So the lots often end up with high grass and sometimes debris — and the city frequently gets blamed.

A city “mow-and-lien” program in recent years has led to better maintenance of those properties, but the liens for the cost of mowing, in addition to the demolition liens, discourage neighbors from buying the often narrow lots to consolidate with their existing side yards.

Maybe forgiving those liens would help get the lots under the ownership of responsible neighbors, a member suggested.

A land bank — which the city has talked about for years, but hasn’t set up — could extinguish those liens, Branton said.

Maybe such lots can be used for community gardens, Marcinko said.

Setbacks changed

It has long been presumed that the narrow lots can’t be built upon because of setback requirements.

That used to be true, but no longer, Slusser said.

In 2011, the city amended the setback requirements for new construction, so that homes must simply match the existing average setbacks on the block in question, Slusser said.

The city already requires that banks register foreclosed properties, which helps officials track who’s legally responsible.

It should add a fee requirement, so those banks would help the city pay for the cost of maintaining those foreclosed properties — whether they have buildings on them or not, a task force member suggested.

The city also has a rental inspection program, which requires inspection of rental properties by code officers every three years.

That program is a fine tool to prevent blight, as properties generally don’t become too far gone during that rotation period, Branton said.

Even a single blighted house in a neighborhood is a problem, because it’s demoralizing, one task force member said.

Blight attracts drug dealers, and vacant blighted homes attract squatters, kids wanting play space and vermin, said another.

Blighted homes are also fire hazards, such that neighbors may have trouble getting fire insurance, said another.

And they dramatically reduce neighboring property values, Marcinko said.

Blight also creates an image problem for a municipality.

Members spoke of taking visitors on routes that avoided blighted areas.

That image concern indicates there’s pride in the city, which will ultimately help overcome the blight problem, Branton said.

Some lack resources

One member warned that it’s important not to demonize or shame owners who simply can’t afford to fix their properties, and to try to ensure that programs are available to help.

“Absolutely correct,” said Rebecca Brown, manager of the city codes and inspections department, speaking of residents she encounters who are “down on their luck” or out of a job.

At the next task force meeting, members will vote on priorities connected with preventing and remediating blight and on redevelopment, Branton said.

At the third meeting, she will present a draft report, she said.

The fourth and final meeting would be a public meeting for discussion of an action plan and ways to pay for putting it in practice, she indicated.

In addition to a land bank, the city might benefit from a “quality-of-life” ticketing ordinance, for quicker and less cumbersome responses to code violations, Branton said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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