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Vacant Lots Abound In Pittsburgh, But Buying One Isn't Easy


To the left of her fridge, Zinna Scott can peer out her kitchen window on Rosewood Avenue in Homewood and see the two open, grassy lots where her neighbors once lived. It’s where she wants to build her dream house.

This story is part of Essential Pittsburgh, an ongoing series exploring how Pittsburgh lives, and how it's evolving.

Though the solid, 95-year-old wood framed house she’s lived in for the last 40 years is adequate, the 69-year-old has dreamed of a smaller eco-friendly home, complete with solar panels and green heating and cooling.


“A goal I’ve always had is to build my own home,” she said. “It’s still a goal, even at my age. And it’s like, the good Lord’s going to have to bless me with some money in order to do it.”


Though she may not have the money to build it yet, Scott is at least one step closer to her dream house.


In December, she took ownership of the two vacant lots next to her home -- a process that officially started three years ago. But Scott has maintained and worked toward owning the lots for more than 10 years, when the one neighboring hers still had an abandoned house on it and the one next to it an overgrown mess of weeds and trash.  


Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
An abandoned house covered in graffiti along Bennett Street in Homewood. Operation Better Block organizers say one-quarter of the houses in Homewood are empty.


A once-thriving community in the mid-century, nearly 80 percent of Homewood’s population is gone. The neighborhood has 5,160 parcels of land, nearly half are vacant lots with no structure. And of the remaining structures, one in every four houses is empty or abandoned. Take a quick drive through the neighborhood and it’s easy to see the remnants of a vibrant community, where houses with wrought iron railings and intricate designs are rusted, overgrown with weeds, tagged by graffiti and slapped with condemned signs.


“It leaves a sense of -- that people have forgotten about the neighborhood and also gives the appearance that people don’t care about the neighborhood,” said Demi Kolke, community development coordinator for Operation Better Block. “That’s a very cyclical mindset, and it just kind of feeds into itself then, because it lends to the lack of responsibility and just kind of continues what might look like disarray or lack of ownership.”


Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Demi Kolke helps Homewood residents navigate the process of buying a blighted property through her organization Operation Better Block.


In Scott’s case, the original owners of each property next to hers had died.


“My question to the city was, ‘How long do you let the property go with property taxes not being paid? Owners not taking care of it before you do something?’” she said.

Though Scott said she had a difficult time finding answers, Aaron Pickett, collection manager for the city’s Department of Finance said a property has to accrue $300 worth of back taxes before the city can take ownership.


“If it doesn't have more than $300 in delinquent taxes, we're not allowed to go after it,” he said.


(Click here for more information on how to buy a vacant lot.)


So Scott continued to advocate for tearing down the abandoned house, while she waiting. According to Kolke, city inspectors will come out and eventually deem an abandoned structure condemned, but most often through community advocacy and calling the city’s 311 line.


“It was abandoned, falling apart, people kept going in, they were stealing the plumbing out,” Scott said. “I kept calling the police.”


She worried someone would catch the wood-frame house on fire and ultimately set her house ablaze.


“I called the police so much, they were sick of me calling them, I’m sure,” she said.


"I called the police so much, they were sick of me calling them, I'm sure."

 After years of calling police and various city offices, the second house was finally torn down in 2012. When an abandoned house is razed, the city places a demolition lien on the property for the cost of tearing it down -- often costing as much as $10,000.

“I pushed,” Scott said. “Had I not pushed, it would have just sat there.”


Once the house came down, Scott began maintaining both properties. She cleaned garbage pitched from car windows, maintained the yards and even installed a rain barrel next to her house that feeds into a garden planted by Nine Mile Run. It’s filled with purple flowers, Scott’s favorite.


In the summer of 2012, Scott put roughly $400 down -- $200 for each lot -- as hand money, a promise to the city that she intended to buy them once the liens and titles had been figured out. When acquiring an abandoned property as a private buyer, that person is responsible for the various liens and fees attached to the property. But through certain city programs, the city waives the fees to wipe the slate clean for a new buyer and help the property become a functioning parcel again.


But Kolke said Scott is an anomaly to even get that far. Kolke often helps Homewood residents navigate the process of buying an abandoned lot and said they must meet a long list of requirements first. To buy a lot, a resident must own their property, have homeowner’s insurance, be current on all taxes and bills -- not even on a payment plan and cannot have any building code violations on their current property.


“That right there knocks out most of the people in Homewood who would want to apply,” Kolke said. “Over half of people’s properties are tax delinquent, so it kicks them out of being eligible. So few people in the neighborhood have homeowners insurance.”


When residents like Scott want to take ownership of these forgotten parcels, the years of waiting, long checklist of requirements and unexpected costs can be prohibitive, Kolke said.


In the six years that Kolke has helped residents through buying an abandoned lot, only six people have successfully completed the process and gained ownership of a lot.


“It’s not a very strong rate,” Kolke said.


Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Zinna Scott holds her granddaughter, one of her 11 grandchildren. Scott aims to one day build an eco-friendly house on the lot next door and share her existing home with family.

Kolke said more have tried, but “they’ve just dropped out … it’s just gotten lost in oblivion.” Her numbers don’t account for people who have gone about the process on their own, without the help of a community group like Operation Better Block, but people are getting stuck in the sometimes un-navigable process, she said.


“It’s just a lack of cohesive, ‘this leads to this, this leads to this,’” Kolke said.


They city's newly-formed Land Bank is expected to facilitate that process and increase transparency, and Pickett said every year the Department of Real Estate handles hundreds of vacant property sales each year -- all in various stages of the process.


Pickett also said he’s spent a lot of time thinking about how the system could be improved. Though the process will likely always require a bit of patience and time to allow for processing and procedure, Pickett said he and others in the department have made a concerted effort to communicate with buyers more, and make sure they’re aware of the process.


“I think in the past we weren't doing that,” he said. “Now I've been returning calls daily, daily with City of Pittsburgh residents saying, ‘Hey, your property is in this stage,' and 'It will be going to treasury, ‘ you know, and various stages in the process.”


And for Scott, it was worth the effort and years of waiting; she now tends the garden on the lot next to her house. “There’s more than enough room," she said, "for my dream house.”