An Allentown-based neighborhood advocacy group announced a program Thursday offering grants and legal advice to Beltzhoover residents willing to help clean up blighted properties and prevent more from falling into disrepair.
Funded through a $15,000 grant from the PNC Foundation, the Hilltop Alliance is offering homeowners up to $250 to purchase a side yard and free legal services to create a will for their existing property.
“With the side yards, we hope that longtime homeowners are going to be able to acquire side lots … and make it a yard, really. And no longer a vacant, overgrown eyesore, but an actually functioning parcel,” executive director Aaron Sukenik said.
Vacant and abandoned properties can become burdensome for neighborhood residents as houses become dilapidated or overgrown with unkempt yards – both dangerous to neighbors and the value of surrounding homes.
Sukenik said hundreds of vacant lots pepper Beltzhoover, but not all are eligible for the side yard acquisition program. Lots must be adjacent to the potential buyer. Many properties, though not maintained, are current on their property taxes and can't be sold. Sukenik said the Hilltop Alliance opted to offer reimbursement for an initial 12 to 18 side yards as a starting point for the new program.
Sukenik said most lots will run around $400 each. Once acquired, new owners will be subject to additional property taxes, but Sukenik said those taxes are generally very low.
The Hilltop Alliance represents several neighborhoods, including Allentown, Knoxville, Carrick, Mt. Oliver, Arlington, Arlington Heights, St. Clair, Mt. Washington and the South Side Slopes. However, Sukenik said Beltzhoover – a community built for 8,000 – now has less than 1,800 residents and by far the highest vacancy rates among the Hilltop neighborhoods.
Side yard acquisition isn't novel. Launched more than four years ago, the city's Side Yard Sale program offers information on yard sales through side yard acquisition, court auctions and sealed bids. But offering free will preparation services is a new and low-cost way to prevent more homes from becoming vacant nuisances, Sukenik said.
“Providing this grant for free wills is definitely more innovative and completely based on the data,” Sukenik said. “It’s completely based on the staggering amount of properties that are still in the names of deceased people and are now vacant and abandoned and crumbling.”
It’s especially crucial as 30 percent of Beltzhoover residents are over the age of 60, he said.