Blight's Out | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


Blight's Out

A Garfield community group is trying to get vacant property back on the tax rolls, no matter how long it takes


The house, like many in Garfield, is in bad shape. The paint is chipped. Bricks on the front porch are buckling under pressure. A web of dried vines climbs the left wall and sprawls across the roof. The railings are rusted, some of the windows punched out. The innards have been rummaged by anonymous vandals and scavengers.

But that's not what Chris St. Pierre sees when he looks at the Kincaid Street building. The 24-year-old painter sees room for solar panels and rainwater collectors. He sees a revamped kitchen and dining room that lead out to a porch and greenhouse. He sees a trellis over the adjoining city steps, with Christmas lights, "a little, whimsical, fantasy nook."

But before he can so much as hammer a nail, he'll have to finish buying the property -- a process that has already taken him more than two years.

In the world of small-scale redevelopment, St. Pierre is about as small as they come. He's just one man, just one man who happens to be an accomplished painter (both house and artistic), and just one man with a cadre of construction-savvy friends.

But St. Pierre has one more thing going for him: a city program for getting blighted property and back onto the tax rolls, known as the property reserve.

Through the property reserve, community development corporations can acquire vacant property on the cheap, with the assumption that these nonprofits will use the real estate for community revitalization (as opposed to padding revenues).

A CDC can then pass the property on to a third-party developer, such as St. Pierre, free of the debts that usually bog down redevelopment. Typically, however, CDCs opt to work with larger, more established developers.

The property reserve grew in reaction to the city's sale of tax debts to a private company in the late 1990s. Community groups feared that private holders of previously public liens would stall redevelopment of vacant property. So the city agreed to establish a so-called reserve for holding properties for future development.

After the city acquires a tax-delinquent property and puts it in the reserve, a CDC can buy the property for the city's purchase price ($100 for lot, $1,000 for structures) plus costs, which tend to run about $1,000.

"There hasn't been a demand [for these types of properties]. Buyers are looking for an incentive," says Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. "If I told them that it was going to cost $10,000, the interest would dry up."

St. Pierre first spotted the house three years ago while visiting a friend in Garfield. From there he went on a personal investigation to find out who was responsible for the property.

Once he identified its owners, Agnes Elvira Miller and Ernest V. Miller, St. Pierre started digging. He found an obituary for Agnes, but he couldn't track down Ernest. Likewise, Agnes's estate proved fruitless for St. Pierre.

After exhausting his own know-how, St. Pierre stopped into the offices of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.

"They knew exactly what to do," he says, probably more so than he realized. Aggie Brose, the BGC's deputy director, helps community groups through the land-reserve process.

"[But] we're not going to steer you," Swartz says. "You need to do your own research."

Swartz says that CDCs screen developers to make sure they have a stable income and can actually do what they set out to do.

St. Pierre has struggled with the pace of the property reserve, which is at times agonizingly slow.

"I'm sure there are long periods of time when [my request is] just a piece of paper. It's just floating around," St. Pierre says. "There have been times, I'm thinking, I have a chunk of money saved up, and I had to immediately decide if I wanted to stay and stick it out, or just up and leave."

"This whole system is kind of like a jalopy," says Kendall Pelling, co-chair of the BGC's Vacant Property Working Group. "It might take a little longer, but it'll get you there."

Part of the problem is that Pennsylvania has some stringent property laws, Pelling says. But still, the process could be faster.

"In order to make it different, it's going to take a political will to create a property-recycling department," he says, which would mean a bigger staff of people committed specifically to these types of projects.

Mary Lou Tenenbaum, real-estate manager in the city's finance department, says that designating a staffer to property-reserve detail would result in someone "reading the news" most of the time.

But in the city's law department, real-estate supervisor Janice Koczerzat blames most of the delays on staffing. According to Koczerzat, the law department works with two full-time and one part-time real-estate technicians, down from four in the 1980s.

Right now, the property reserve is the shared responsibility of the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the city finance and law departments.

The URA reviews property-reserve proposals for feasibility, determining whether a CDC can actually do what it claims it can do. City finance handles purchasing the vacant property through a treasurer's sale. And the law department works to clear the property of liens, mortgages and other debts.

It's that last step where some of the hardest hurdles can be met. When the city first acquires a property, it often comes awash in debt, making it unattractive for resale. So the city will file for what's known as a "quiet title" action to clear claims on the property.

In order to get the quiet title, though, all parties with a claim to the property must be given some chance to object. And even in cases where no one protests, this can take time.

The city must give these parties 30 days from when they receive a notice to respond.

Things could be worse, though. In the late 1990s, the city and Allegheny County sold tax liens to private companies. While the city's deal produced $64 million in revenue, it also gave the companies a stranglehold on the properties and left them with little incentive to cooperate with local CDCs.

"They sat in the same position as the city of Pittsburgh," Koczerzat says.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's chief of staff, Yarone Zober, who was deputy mayor under Mayor Bob O'Connor, says that the lien sale was an issue that would "rise over and over again," in purchasing side-lots, in large-scale redevelopment, and in the property reserve.

Then in December 2006, Ravenstahl announced that the city (along with Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Water and Sewer Authority) was repurchasing the liens for "literally pennies on the dollar," as Zober now puts it.

More recently, Allegheny County announced in January that it had repurchased roughly a quarter of its liens. Community groups and city staffers are still waiting to see how the county will handle these repurchased liens.

Luckily for St. Pierre, his future house on Kincaid Street has been scrubbed clean of debt. The city purchased a treasurer's deed for it on Dec. 4, 2006, and received the quiet title on Feb. 19, 2008.

All that remains now is for the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. to finalize a deal with the city and then close a sale with St. Pierre, which should happen in the very near future.

"Garfield has much in the way of vacant land and vacant housing," says Swartz of the BGC. "Maybe there is room for a smaller type of person."

For St. Pierre, who grew up in Friendship, buying this property is about more than rotten timber and tax redemptions. It's about joining a community, with the same care that he will commit to patching leaks and installing pipes.

"Garfield is beautiful," he says. "And it's not an investment [in the financial sense]. It's an investment in my community's future."

Aggie Brose of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. in front of the Kincaid Street property. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Aggie Brose of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. in front of the Kincaid Street property.

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