Program could help fight blight

Bellevue officials and residents got a reminder of how difficult it is to address blighted properties in the borough, but also heard at Tuesday’s meeting about a program that might provide a new tool in the ongoing battle.

Residents forced to live near a blighted or abandoned property are often frustrated when they turn for help to their local government and find out the process of warnings, citations, court hearings and appeals can take years and produce few results. Often there is a problem tracking down an actual owner for the property, especially when the house becomes vacant due to death. Municipalities can have their public works departments perform some maintenance, like grass cutting, and file liens against the property in the hope it someday will be sold and the borough can recover its investment. Liens also are filed for unpaid property taxes and sometimes water and sewage fees. Eventually the property may accumulate enough liens that a sheriff’s sale can be held, but there is no guarantee that anyone will buy it, or be willing to pay enough for the property to cover the liens. Local governments have worked with Allegheny County to forgive some tax liens in an attempt to get properties sold and renovated. Others are in such bad condition that demolition is the only answer, but that costs thousands of dollars. The Community Development Block Grant program once provided funds for municipalities to demolish blighted properties, but that program no longer provides grants for that purpose. Several properties in Bellevue and Avalon have been demolished in the last few years with CDBG funds.

One Bellevue property was the subject of discussion at Tuesday’s Bellevue pre-council meeting. Located at the intersection of Roosevelt and Sheridan avenues, neighbors described it as overrun by wildlife and literally falling to pieces as sections of the roof and siding collapse. One neighbor became so agitated while addressing council that he had to be asked to leave the council chambers.

The resident told officials that he has become trapped in Bellevue, unable to sell his property for a fair market value because the entire neighborhood has become undesirable due to the blighted properties. He accused the borough of “not doing its job” to remedy the situation, but code enforcement officer Jim DelCroix said that Bellevue has done everything it can do under the law.

The owner of the property, uses multiple addresses and there currently are four warrants that have been issued for his arrest. Fines levied against the owner for property maintenance violations are now up to about $6,500, DelCroix said.

Another resident of Bellevue who recently moved to town with her fiance also addressed council. Sabreena Woods works with the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, an organization comprised of community development groups and associated non-profits dedicated to encouraging investment in their communities. The Bellevue Initiative for Growth AND Revitalization (BIGr) is a member of the PCRG.

Woods said that PCRG is trying to spread the word about a state law that authorizes conservatorship of blighted properties. Community development groups, municipalities and even private individuals can apply to become the conservator of a blighted property, she said. The conservator would be responsible for renovating the property at its own expense. At that point the property can be returned to the original owner upon payment of the renovation costs plus a 20 percent conservatorship fee, or the conservator can get permission to sell the property to another buyer.

Council member Linda Woshner, who is Bellevue’s representative on an intergovernmental committee that includes Avalon and the Northgate School District, said that the committee has looked at this program, and the biggest problem is finding a conservator with the funds to renovate the property. Most banks will not provide mortgages in such cases because the conservator is not the actual owner of the property.

“Every community wants to address blight,” said Bellevue solicitor Matt Racunas. “It’s just hard to get there.”