PITTSTON — Representatives of Luzerne County government and three of the four cities in the county heard a presentation Tuesday from a woman who helped Philadelphia set up a system to successfully battle blight in neighborhoods and is now doing the same for Pittsburgh.
Maura Kennedy, director of the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections for the city of Pittsburgh, was the featured speaker at a meeting organized by former Pittston Mayor Mike Lombardo at the John Cosgrove Center of the Pittston Memorial Library.
Lombardo, who now serves as vice chairman of the city redevelopment authority and a member of the city housing authority, said housing is a critical issue in any town and improving it results in higher earned income tax revenue and reduced crime rates, while blight decreases property values and fosters a higher-crime environment.
Kennedy, who left Philadelphia in 2014 as the city’s director of Strategic Initiatives after six years of work on the blight problem, said the city had 40,000 vacant parcels in 2010, with nearly a quarter of the properties owned by the city and the rest privately owned.
The strategy involved some first basic steps: identifying the vacant properties and who owned them. This was accomplished at practically no cost by using the services of interns from local colleges.
The team used the same service used by the IRS to track down blighted property owners — “It’s the best $100 a month you’ll spend,” she said — and then sending out notices, sometimes to a dozen or so addresses, and threatening high fines and legal action.
Local laws were put in place requiring owners of vacant properties to make them look “lived in” — by installing working windows and doors rather than allowing windows and doors to be boarded up — or face daily fines of $100 per window and door.
Kennedy noted that Act 90 allows fines to be attached to owners’ personal property. Previously, municipalities could only attach fines as liens on the blighted property, she said.
Dedicated legal resources was another important part of the overall strategy, she said, noting the creation of a “blight court” to ensure cases flowed through the legal process quickly.
Results were impressive, with more than $3 million in revenue produced through licenses, permits, certificates, court fines and summary judgments.
Lombardo noted that representatives of Luzerne County and the cities of Pittston, Nanticoke and Wilkes-Barre attended the presentation; Hazleton officials had a council meeting scheduled Tuesday night and couldn’t attend.
He believes that working together, officials from the four cities and the county can pool their resources and make some positive changes in addition to the ones already being made.
For example, some mortgage companies “drag their feet” on foreclosing “because they don’t want to flip the asset on the bad part of their books.” Some mortgage companies will transfer blighted, foreclosed-upon properties to sister companies “and you’re chasing ghosts” trying to track down the current owner, Lombardo said.
Another problem is sheriff sales listing condemned properties without identifying them as such, people buying them for a few thousand dollars, sight unseen, and then abandoning them again after realizing the amount of repair they would need to be brought up to code, Lombardo said.
Municipalities need to band together to support legislation that would require fixes to these problems, applying pressure on legislators and mortgage companies, he said.
Establishing a landlord court to handle vacant and blighted property issues would be another big help, as would offering incentives to responsible landlords, such as waiving property registration fees after a number of years of responsible ownership, Lombardo added.
He noted that about a year and a half ago, Pittston did an inventory of all city property and began fixing things that needed fixing: replacing worn streets signs, fixing curbs and handicap access points, painting fire hydrants, etc. “You can’t ask neighborhoods to take care of themselves when we, the city, don’t take care of our own issues,” he said.
More recently, Lombardo said, the city began to address blight with initiatives such as requiring rental property registration and starting a land bank with some nearby municipalities to acquire blighted properties.
Officials are also working to create more senior housing so senior citizens whose homes have become too large for them to care for can sell their homes but still remain living in their community, he said.
“There’s no silver bullet that fixes this,” Lombardo said. “This is a 20-, 30-year battle. But I think the point of tonight is that if we battle together, we can get farther down the field.”