Brian O’Neill: Blight-Ridding Bill In Pittsburgh Shows Plenty Of Potential

A map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with its nei...

A map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with its neighborhoods labeled. For use primarily in the list of Pittsburgh neighborhoods. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Drive down Hamilton Avenue or its side streets in Homewood and you’ll see a whole lot of not there anymore.

City Council is trying to hash out a plan to “land bank” the acres of vacant and boarded-up properties the city controls so they can be cleared for sale. That would take in about half of Homewood and almost half the Hill District.

When I asked Councilman Ricky Burgess, who represents Homewood, if he could give me a quick tour of the problem sites, he said, “You don’t need me. I’m dead serious. Drive down Hamilton Avenue and drive around at your leisure. It’s so bad … it’s breathtaking.”

He was right. It came as advertised.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/brian-oneill/2014/01/26/Brian-O-Neill-Blight-ridding-bill-in-Pittsburgh-shows-plenty-of-potential/stories/201401260059#ixzz2reCwstxI

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Philadelphia Council Committee Says Yes To A Land Bank

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Philadelphia ...

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Philadelphia County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After years of talking the talk about getting a land bank in Philadelphia, where blight scars entire neighborhoods, City Council started Monday to walk the walk.

On a 6-1 vote, Council’s Committee on Public Property and Public Works approved a resolution to establish a land bank. The bill still needs a vote of the full Council.

If it approves, Philadelphia would become the largest city with a land bank. Land banks streamline the process for rescuing blighted property, whether by homeowners who want to turn a vacant lot next door into a garden or developers who hope to buy clusters of houses to make way for a major project.

One expert said Philadelphia was better equipped than some cities with land banks, such as Flint, Mich.; Cleveland; and St. Louis.

Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/20131029_Phila__Council_committee_says_yes_to_a_land_bank.html#86b2DVYsKXDDfbXV.99

Wilkes-Barre Lists 51 Rental Properties Cited By Code Enforcement

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Luzerne County

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Luzerne County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WILKES-BARRE — A day after council took the first step to approve an amendment toughening the city’s rental ordinance, the code enforcement office listed more than 5o citations to property owners over a four-month period.

More than half of the 51 properties have out-of-town owners, a point stressed by Mayor Tom Leighton when he proposed the amendment to crack down on problem properties contributing to the rise in violent crime.

City spokeswoman Liza Prokop said the timing of the release of the list was unrelated to the pending amendment.

In an e-mail Wednesday she said, “It is standard practice for the city to release information on code violations.”

Read more: http://www.timesleader.com/news/local-news/754179/City-lists-51-rental-properties-cited-by-code-enforcement

Wilkes-Barre Group Aims To Revitalize Neighborhoods

WILKES-BARRE — A nonprofit organization has it eyes on city-owned vacant lots as part of a plan to revitalize neighborhoods.

Larissa Cleary, founder of In the Gap, presented the group’s plans for the properties to City Council this week. “My idea is to utilize the city’s land; sell it to me for $1 in order to build and develop the area,” she told council.

With only five minutes to present her group’s plan, Leary provided a summary and said she looked forward to meeting with council members for a more in-depth discussion.  If given the opportunity to do so, she said, “I could make every one of them happy.”

In the Gap, based in the city, intends to construct 12 townhouses on Hickory Street and single-family houses in the 400 block of South River Street, she said.  If the lots don’t sell, the group would revamp its plans so the townhouses would be rent-to-own properties, Cleary said.

Read more:  http://www.timesleader.com/news/local-news/684497/W-B-group-aims-to-revitalize-neighborhoods

New Pottstown Law Charges Fee To Owners Of Vacant Property

Editor’s note:  The only way this is worth the paper it’s printed on is IF it’s enforced.  The track record for enforcing ordinances in Pottstown is poor.  There are loitering ordinances on file but look at High Street.  “ZZ Top” and company lingering aimlessly around the clock tower, panhandlers, drop in center people hanging around etc…  Why not enforce the laws already on the books!  That would offer immediate improvement.

POTTSTOWN — With a 4-1 vote Monday, borough council adopted a new ordinance which requires the owners of vacant property to register those properties with the borough and to pay an escalating registration fee for each year the property remains vacant.

According to the ordinance, the owners of vacant property must not only register it, but secure it against illegal entry and even post a sign on the property, indicating the name, address and telephone number of the owner.

Starting Sept. 1, when the ordinance goes into effect, owners of vacant residential property must pay a $75 registration fee. If the property is vacant a year later, the registration fee is $125, and $175 the year after that. For every other subsequent year the property is vacant, the registration fee is $275.

Vacant multi-family dwellings will see their registration fee rise from $200 to $400 and industrial or commercial buildings smaller than 10,000 square feet have a first-time fee of $250 that rises to $450 by the fourth year.

Read more:  http://www.pottsmerc.com/article/20130217/NEWS01/130219607/new-pottstown-law-charges-fee-to-owners-of-vacant-property#full_story

An Editorial Follow Up – Activist Invites Pottstown Council To See Poor Living Conditions In Permitted Rental

Location of Pottstown in Montgomery County

Location of Pottstown in Montgomery County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Saturday, June 30th, the Mercury published a piece on Pottstown’s first Open Slum House Tour. Members of Pottstown Borough Council were invited to come and see first hand the horrific living conditions in a rental unit at 501 King Street.  The rental unit was issued a permit by Pottstown’s Codes Department. 

An open house was held on Saturday afternoon from 2:00pm to 3:30pm and hosted by Katy Jackson, a King Street resident and community activist.

What I am about to report is typical and totally disheartening.  Only one Borough Councilor showed up!  Fifth Ward Councilor Dan Weand!  Councilor Weand was accompanied by his wife Polly (a Pottstown School Board member).  John Armato, Pottstown School District Director of Community Relations also attended the open house.  Thank you Dan, Polly and John for taking time out of your Saturday to give a damn about Pottstown!

(The elephants in the room)

  1. Where in the hell was Pottstown Borough Council President, Steven Toroney or First Ward Councilor Mark Gibson, whose ward contains the offending property????????????????? 
  2. Pottstown’s Codes Department apparently deemed this property A-OK and issued a permit for the owner to rent the property.  Considering the horrific state of the property in question, does this not make you wonder exactly what metrics borough codes employees are using?  Would you want to live in a house of horrors like this?  Is this not a huge red flag that there might be a problem?  Is this not indicative of a broken process? 
  3. As an elected official, whose job it is to serve the taxpayers of Pottstown, taking an hour out of your Saturday to get first hand knowledge of a serious problem should be a top priority.  It would have been prudent to notify Mrs. Jackson that you had a prior commitment that precluded your attendance so as not to appear indifferent to the plight of the people who elected you into office!

Based on the pictures and description of the property, it sounds like it should be condemned and torn down, not given a rental permit!

Steve, if you aren’t up to the task of being Pottstown Borough Council President, we think you should step down.  We see no evidence of leadership, no vision and no way forward being presented.  Sitting in your North End home and ignoring everything south of Wilson Street isn’t much of a strategy. 

Pottstown is spiraling out of control.  Key employees are leaving, councilors are resigning, crime is high, poverty is high, slumlords and Section 8 housing are pulling Pottstown down while property and school taxes go up, up, up…  Is the goal here to become the next Pennsylvania community accepted into the Act 47 program for financially distressed municipalities?

There was just a home invasion in the 800 block of Queen Street.  There are too many shootings.  There are hookers and drug dealers lurking in the alleys of the core neighborhood.  There are tumbleweeds blowing down High Street.  Borough Council does not support the few struggling businesses downtown nor does Pottstown enforce laws for loitering and panhandling which deter shoppers, diners and theatre patrons.  There is a homeless problem you refuse to deal with and the list goes on and on.

Pottstown deserves a Borough Council who is willing and ABLE to lead the community down the road to prosperity.  Those who can’t should step aside and let those who can DO! 

Sticking one’s head in the sand and ignoring all the warning signs is not what you were elected into office to do.  People expect action.  People expect and want change for the better.  Status quo is not an option.  Neither is taxing people to the point of having to choose between paying taxes or buying food and medicine.  Look at all the for sale signs around town.  Look at the abandoned properties where homeowners have simply walked away.  All is not well!  Get a clue!

Either lead or get out-of-the-way!

Pottstown Civic Activists Stage Rally Against Deadbeat Slumlords On King Street

Teri Lyn Jensen-Sellers and Katy Jackson, both neighborhood residents, organized a rally today to protest “landlord” Andrew Soule’s $10,000+ in back payments for sewer/water/trash to the Borough of Pottstown and the condition of his buildings in the 400 block of King Street.  Reporters from The Mercury, The Pottstown Patch and Roy’s Rants were on hand to document the effort of this group to draw attention to this huge problem plaguing Pottstown.  Absentee landlords with blighted properties and overdue bills are straining Pottstown’s already stressed tax base.

The Borough of Pottstown is owed over $700,000 in back water/sewer/trash payments from 200 people.  The top 10 people on the Pottstown Wall of Shame owe nearly $200,000.  As Pottstown Borough Manager Jason Bobst has stated, “It’s all the same people that we see time and time again.”  Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski uses the Hall of Shame tactic in Allentown very successfully.  Mrs. Jackson recently attended a webinar on this subject hosted by Allentown’s mayor to learn more about how other towns and cities are coping with this problem.

Mr. Soule was evidently on the scene when the first protestors appeared, but left upon their arrival.  Mrs. Jensen-Sellers questioned a man but he denied being Andrew Soule.  A neighbor stated it was Mr. Soule after the man departed.

Sixth Ward Councilor and Man of the People, Jody Rhoads was on the scene as the sole representative of Pottstown Borough leadership along with Gallery on High/Gallery School co-founder Cathy Paretti and Andrew Monastra, a real estate lawyer with an office in the borough.  A Code Blue member was in attendance as well as other concerned borough residents.

I interviewed two former tenants of Mr. Soule, both of whom had unpleasant dealings with the landlord.

Both Mrs. Paretti and Mr. Monastra shared their feelings about doing business in Pottstown and the challenges of being a business owner here.  Both see the potential Pottstown has to offer but understand that many things need to change before Pottstown can follow in Phoenixville’s footsteps.

Pottstown’s New Citizen Codes Inspector Program

Quality of Life improvements in the Borough of Pottstown are high on the agenda these days.  Improving the experience of living in Pottstown is a key element in the revitalization process.  To that end, the Borough Manager found a program that tackles a long-standing problem here in Pottstown – codes!  Blighted properties and abuses by absentee landlords have plagued our town for decades.  In order to clean up the mess and make Pottstown more attractive to current residents, prospective residents and commercial/business interests, our Codes Department needs more bodies on the streets.

The Citizen Codes Inspector Program takes borough residents, in good standing, and trains them to assist the Codes Department personnel by identifying and reporting code violations.  Here is a partial list of the qualifications for a Citizen Code Inspector:

-Residency in the borough

-General good health

-Reading/writing/comprehension capabilities

-No outstanding violations/citations with the Borough of Pottstown in areas of parking, legal, codes, water, sewer, trash or taxes.

-Good communication skills

-Ability/desire to walk some distance on borough streets and alleyways

The Borough Manager and the Codes Department personnel will be responsible for selecting those individuals who have applied for these positions.

The Citizen Codes Inspector is a volunteer (unpaid) position.  The goal is to find borough residents who wish to become involved and make a difference in the community by volunteering their time to assist the Codes Department.  Programs similar to this are already in place in other municipalities in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and have been very successful.  The Borough Manager researched this program thoroughly before recommending it to Pottstown Borough Council for approval.

The training program will last four weeks and require about 7 hours to complete.  The first phase is 2-4 hours of classroom training and the second phase is 2-3 hours of field experience with a Codes Department employee.  During phase two (field experience) the trainee will practice writing up reports and have them reviewed by their Codes Department trainer.

The third phase is a debriefing and group session to do a final review and answer questions.

Safety of the Citizen Codes Inspector is paramount and there are systems in place to ensure this.  Citizen Inspectors will be given identification and some sort of apparel to help identify them.  The Pottstown Police Department will be made aware when these inspections are taking place.  Citizen Inspectors will not enter private property.  Inspections will be made from the public right-of-way to minimize any confrontations between the Citizen Inspectors and property owners.

If you live in the Borough of Pottstown and would like to volunteer your time to make a difference, click on the link below.  You can read the entire article I have summarized and fill out an application to become a Citizen Codes Inspector.

http://www.pottstown.org/PDF/forms/citizen-codes-inspector-application.pdf

Many thanks to Jason Bobst, Pottstown Borough Manager, for finding a creative solution to a big problem that does not require raising taxes or adding staff!

Blight Eradication In Wilkes-Barre Neighborhood

After some legal wrangling, three blighted properties on Monroe Street in Wilkes-Barre were demolished.  The blighted properties became dumping grounds and the neighbors were bothered by noxious odors for several years.  There have also been multiple fires (arson) at the site over the last two-years which have been a great concern for neighbors. 

Blighted, and in this case vacant, properties are magnets for vandalism, squatters, dumping and rodents.  These properties were jeopardizing the stability of an otherwise nice neighborhood.  Repeated fires also created serious safety hazards for neighboring residents.  Another issue here, there is an $18,000 tax lien on the property, which is still owned by Christopher Street Realty.  The city is being reimbursed for the demolition of the derelict properties.

Kudos to Wilkes-Barre for taking the necessary steps to demolish these blighted properties and making this neighborhood safe and healthy once again!

Philadelphia Housing Concerns, Landlord Violations And Creation Of A Land Bank

Temple University logo (no text, "T"...

Image via Wikipedia

 

This should sound familiar to Pottstown residents.  Our big city neighbor to the SE is grappling with many of the same issues that Pottstown is facing: landlords, vacant and blighted properties and gentrification of neighborhoods 

There was a Revitalizing Urban Neighborhoods Conference at Temple University yesterday attended by about 300 people and some big investors. 

Subjects like illegal rentals, blighted lots and private citizens having the ability to buy property from the Redevelopment Authority versus that land being sold to developers were discussed.  Another hot topic was creation of a Land Bank so developers can more easily purchase vacant lots. 

The conversation was spirited by all accounts as city residents expressed their frustrations on these subjects.