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Vacant Scares

Housing developers gather to work for proper properties

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Nick Kyriazi, housing chair and president of East Allegheny Community Council, stands outside an obviously vacant and untended house on Avery Street during a recent tour of the abandoned houses in this North Side neighborhood.

"It's not vacant," he jokes. "Pigeons live in there." The owner has cleaned the façade, put in new windows, stripped the wood on the door and window frames and let it sit, numberless. "Eventually the sun is going to rot this thing," Kyriazi says.

"This has been abandoned ever since you moved here?" he asks the owner of the house next door.

The neighbor nods. "A guy was here today, clearing brush," he says, so unsure of what the empty house's owner looks like after seven years of living next door that he isn't certain who the worker was.

"Who knows what he's doing?" Kyriazi says of the absent owner. "He won't return phone calls. It's a nice house. It's between two renovated houses and he's taking his time doing next to nothing."

More than 100 community activists like Kyriazi gathered June 6 in Oakland for the first local conference on abandoned buildings and vacant land, sponsored by Pittsburgh History and Landmark Foundation and several other local groups that focus on a problem affecting as many as 15,000 residences in the city (see "Broken Homes," 6/11/03).

"Don't let anybody kid you -- the only tool you really need is money," Jerry Dettore, deputy director of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, told the crowd; the URA is a regular source of funding for home renovation and fresh construction projects in city neighborhoods.

The attendees were very familiar with the sometimes slow process of recovering properties whose owners have walked away. But presenters did manage to offer possible new solutions to the problem. Keith Welks, head of the nonprofit Phoenix Land Recycling Company in Harrisburg, revealed to even the most veteran neighborhood developers that pollution clean-up laws may complicate even the simplest demolition-and-rebuilding project: Any vacant city land is essentially a "brownfield," land considered environmentally suspect from lead paint or worse. And it's easier to get government funding to do environmental analysis on 100,000 acres than on the typical half-acre city lot. The state must allow owners to inspect their land before they buy it, Welks suggested.

Tracking and reaching owners of abandoned houses may not be as difficult in the future as it is today. Simi Otania-Pole, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, demonstrated to housing activists a thus-far, non-public Web site database of all Philadelphia properties she recently helped develop. Conference attendees hope to duplicate the Web site here, including its most useful features: a listing of each property's history, including owners, utilities and liens, as well as an ability to assemble properties into groups for possible development.

By using the database in Philly, Otania-Pole and her colleagues discovered, "Sixty percent of owners of abandoned properties lived within one mile of the properties. They are in the communities. You can go target them."

Nick Kyriazi, for one, is already an expert at finding the absent owners of East Allegheny houses. He was the first person to buy and renovate in this historic neighborhood in 1979, he reports. "There was nothing happening here," he says. "It's a confidence game -- it really is. Whenever we renovated the houses around me, [the neighborhood council] would send people over to see my house and that would give people confidence." East Allegheny Community Council has done 72 restorations or fresh residences since 1983, including Deutchtown Square's 32 new homes. Six more houses are being designed now.

"In our neighborhood," he says, "most people do not abandon their homes" -- but the result is the same: ugly properties that turn into public nuisances. "They may have maintenance problems, but [the owners are] speculating, and they carefully pay their taxes" to avoid seizure by the city. On his walking tour, he points out another Avery Street home: The owner of this house, he says, "is the one who called me [and said], 'Do you think it'll be worth something with the new stadiums?' I said, no, the stadiums are worthless to us. The only thing that matters is who lives next to you. That's what makes the property desirable" -- or not.

Tonya Payne, president of Uptown Community Action Group, says she has the same problem with absent owners boarding and waiting to sell their homes in this neighborhood below the Hill District. "Everyone's thinking that the Penguins deal is going to happen and it'll be the magic ticket to everything," she says of a proposed replacement for Mellon Arena. "They'll build their arena on Fifth Avenue and poof, we'll be a new community."

As Kyriazi concludes: "We're on the cusp of a desirable neighborhood where people see they're going to make some money." All they fail to understand, he adds, is that the EACC still has to spend more on renovation than it gets back in sales price.

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