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Transforming Urban Blight Into Community Spaces In Pittsburgh

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Essential Pittsburgh's Paul Guggenheimer speaks with Operation Better Block's Demi Kolke beside an abandoned property in Homewood.

Vacant properties in Pittsburgh are increasingly becoming more abundant, driving property values down and costing tax payers nearly $400,000 a year.   Liz Hersh, Executive Director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania says that although there are 16,000 to 20,000 vacant properties in Pittsburgh, blight in Pennsylvania is not just an urban issue.

“Because we’re an old state, we’ve had a lot of changes in industry, and we’ve had a lot of population loss over the years, and a lack of reinvestment, and a lack of policy to encourage or incentivize reuse of old properties,” Hersh explains.

Bethany Davidson, Neighborhood Policy Director of Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Groupsays her organization aims to activate blighted properties through policies and programs.  The PCRG, she explains, works to engage and bring together nonprofits to revitalize forgotten land.

She discussed some of PCRG’s efforts to “fight blight,” including land recycling activities and a “Side Yard Sale Program” in which home owners take care of nearby blighted properties to improve their neighborhood’s property values.  

However, state restrictions on property rights often keep many blighted properties from seeing change.

“In Pittsburgh, part of the challenge is that unless we have different state laws or state law changes, potentially we can’t necessarily ‘do more’,” Davidson says. 

Hersh explained that antiquated laws have seen change over the past 10 to 12 years, as lawmakers have been able to modernize them.

“We identified a number of places where antiquated state laws were making it very hard for local communities to acquire and dispose of a blighted and abandoned property, or to be able to enforce a property maintenance code,” Hersh says.

She added that having a land bank, a publicly created entity whose sole purpose is to acquire vacant, blighted, and abandoned land and clear old tax liens off of it, is critical to getting a house back on the market.

Davidson concurs, but says that land banking will not stop the issue all together.

“Land recycling and land banking is certainly one large piece to the puzzle. Continued investment and commitment to code enforcement with those supportive programs that keep the provisions to help homeowners who are struggling in place, I would put those three pieces together.” 

Watch a videoon how Homewood is fighting urban blight and transforming their neighborhood.

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

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