Like many older industrial cities, the Pittsburgh region has its share of blight. According to the most recent data from the 2010 census, there are more than 50,000 vacant houses in Allegheny County.
For more than a century, federal, state and city governments have tried to address the issue. Today, a new generation of tools is being used in attempts to clean up blighted neighborhoods.
If a city were a human body, then blight is a disease, according to Aggie Brose, deputy director of the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation.
“I’m telling you, blight is contagious," she said. "It’s like a damn virus."
Brose explained that as a neighborhood’s population ages, property upkeep and tax bills can be low spending priorities for poor seniors. When they die, the property is often loaded with debt and their children don’t want it. So it sits unclaimed and unmaintained.
In Pittsburgh's Garfield neighborhood, more than a quarter of the parcels of land are vacant or contain vacant properties. Many grow thick with weeds in the summer and slowly deteriorate from freezing and thawing through the winter.
One has to go back many seasons to understand the origins of blight, according to Edward Muller, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He said blight is a way of describing a property’s condition, but blight is also a legal term introduced in the Urban Renewal Acts of 1949 and 1954.
“Blight was defined by the states as a way of characterizing housing in a neighborhood," said Muller. "It could then, under the Urban Renewal Acts, be cleared, taken by eminent domain and readied for development at which point it would then be sold to private developers to ‘renew.’”
Muller said the concept of blight can be traced to early last century when neighborhoods were crowded with cheap labor, mostly immigrants and blacks. The idea emerged that better living conditions for the workforce could be achieved, and social problems addressed, if the neighborhoods were cleaned up. In order to do that, lawmakers needed to have the power to take control of the property.
With new laws on the books after World War II, cities, states and the federal government looked to rebuild their urban hubs.
“And right here in Pittsburgh, we have one of the great examples," Muller said. "And that of course is the lower Hill District.”
But Muller said housing experts and lawmakers failed to see that blighted neighborhoods that were razed to build the civic arena and acres of parking lots also contain social and economic networks.
“Jobs in local grocery stores or cleaners or barbers and nightclubs and things," he said. "When you clear that out you are clearing out the social networks, the cultural networks, the familial networks.”
Once an area is cleared, Muller said the community and its networks are destroyed or set adrift and can't be replaced by new housing that goes up in its place. After development of the lower Hill, Muller said there was a shift away from large urban renewal efforts toward smaller projects that included communities in the planning process. That shift brought about community development corporations such as Aggie Brose’s Bloomfield Garfield Corporation.
Forty-seven years after the Civic Arena went up, Pittsburgh found a new tool to fight blight.
Enter the land bank.
Land bank legislation has been a priority of Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration. In urging city council members to vote for it, Peduto wrote that “under current laws it would take the city more than 60 years to work through blighted and abandoned property.”
He vowed that with a land bank, it would take less than nine. Council passed the legislation in April.
The land bank allows the city to quickly acquire and bundle tax delinquent properties to sell to home developers, rather than the piecemeal and time-consuming approach neighborhood development corporations had taken. Brose said she’s optimistic that it will slash the number of languishing properties.
“I love it. It’s a true need," Brose said. "And it’s not a need for any one given neighborhood, it’s a need for the city of Pittsburgh. Decay doesn’t stand still. It rolls.”
And there may be more tools to help in the effort. Maura Kennedy packed up and moved across the state to oversee Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Building Inspections. Peduto hired her in part because of the way she fought blight while working in Philadelphia.
Blight can spread like a weed, Kennedy said.
"But the opposite is also true," she said. "Once you start holding people accountable and forcing change it’s really exciting to see the spread of dumpsters and people painting their porches and reinvesting in their community.”
Kennedy said in Philadelphia a number of weapons are used to attack the problem. They include a “blight court” to address vacant and tax delinquent properties. There is a local doors and windows ordinance that levies steep fines on property owners — hundreds of dollars per day for each non-functioning door and window. And crucially, city officials wield Pennsylvania’s Act 90 of 2013, which, among other things, allows cities to attach fines to a delinquent owner’s personal assets.
"So you may not care about fixing it or paying that fine when it’s attached to a building 40 miles away from you," Kennedy said. "But when we’re coming to your house and your suburban neighborhood and putting that sign on your door, you’re going to be a lot more responsive to our violations."
Right now Kennedy is concerned with what she calls “fixing the fundamentals,” such as streamlining inspections and creating consistency in code enforcement. But she said eradicating blight isn’t only about aesthetics, it's about the environment derelict properties propagate.
“It could harbor criminal activities if it’s open to trespass," Kennedy said. "I think it is a real issue in terms of making the neighborhood feel less safe, so you aren’t out in the streets.”
Driving around in Brose's little black car, she tapped at the window pointing at the blighted properties that score the streets of Garfield. Brose reeled off the names of property owners, addresses and the stories behind each parcel like she’s reciting family history.
She lists the disappointments: "the porch falling down, nothing but weeds, old Insulbrick, windows are falling apart, you got this one over here boarded up it’s got graffiti…" as well as the success stories of trimmed hedges, fresh paint and new housing.
"She’s a gem. Look at her place with her bird feeder," Brose said. "These folks think they died and went to heaven, you know, to have a brand new house that’s affordable. We’re all about affordable. Some of them are market rate, but people have to have dignity and pride ... and we’re putting new ones here…"
Block by block, parcel by parcel, Brose is trying to wrestle the neighborhood back from blight with the tools available to her and the city. She said the land bank will take a huge burden off of the shoulders of the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation.
And she's looking forward to her next project: the emerging "tiny house" movement.