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May 24, 2010

43 'Blighted' Properties Tell Sad, Familiar Stories

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The 43 properties declared "blighted" by city council this month tell sad but familiar-sounding stories.

Some are homes that were apparently abandoned by elderly owners --- or their heirs --- who were unable to sell them and no longer able to care for them.

Others were snapped by real-estate speculators who took out mortgages at far more than the value of the properties --- and then defaulted on their payments.

. . .

On May 5, council voted 6-0, with Councilwoman Loretta Diggs absent, to declare all 43 structures dangerous "to the health, welfare and safety" of residents.

Mainly frame houses built in the early part of the 20th century, the newly designated "blighted" properties are located in practically every part of the city, from Long Run Road to 10th Ward.

All are now scheduled for demolition --- at taxpayer expense --- as the city's aggressive effort to eliminate nuisance and derelict structures continues.

. . .

"We have done demolition in every single ward," Mayor James Brewster says, though he notes "there are so many to do that sometimes, you just don't notice."

In a few neighborhoods, however, demolition efforts are very noticeable, because progress can be measured in vacant lawns. Four houses have just been declared "blighted" on Lawndale Avenue, including 2311, 2313 and 2317. The house at 2315 has already been demolished. When the other three are taken down, four lots in a row will be empty.

Seven properties on Jenny Lind Street alone are targeted for demolition, along with five on Beaver Street.

. . .

Some of the properties just declared blighted are emblematic of the Mon Valley's changing demographics since the decline of the steel industry, when young families moved away in earnest.

For example, one boarded-up structure designated as a "blighted property" in the 1500 block of Evans Avenue is legally owned by a married couple who purchased it just after World War II.

According to Social Security records, the husband has been dead since 1980 and the wife has since moved into a senior-citizen complex.

. . .

Other blighted properties appear to be victims of real-estate speculators and the subprime mortgage debacle.

One house in the 1500 block of Beaver Street targeted for demolition was purchased in 2003 by KPK Realty, a Colorado company, according to county records.

The two-story 1920s vintage frame house was assessed by Allegheny County for $31,000. KPK sold the home to a Penn Hills man in 2006 for $65,000.

County records indicate that the owner then defaulted on the mortgage, which was held by CIT Group, and in January 2010 the company repossessed the house.

CIT Group is now in federal bankruptcy protection, in part because it entered financial difficulty after the subprime mortgage market collapsed.

. . .

According to county records, owners three times between 2006 and 2007 "flipped" the home at 2317 Lawndale. It's currently owned by two Florida men.

Thousands of dollars in taxes have gone unpaid to McKeesport Area School District and Allegheny County and will likely never be collected.

Commercial properties designated "blighted" this month include a building near the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Lysle Boulevard.

Once used as a printing shop, it has been vacant for years and according to Allegheny County tax records is legally owned by Craig Immel of Greensburg, former proprietor of the now-defunct motorcycle shop next door.

. . .

Citywide, Brewster says, about 400 buildings are currently awaiting demolition "and need to go."

Funding for the demolition is coming in part from federal community development block grants and a donation made by Richard Mellon Scaife, philanthropist and publisher of the Tribune-Review and the McKeesport Daily News.

But demolition will take time, because the number of houses to be torn down is far greater than the amount of money available.

. . .

Yet Brewster says the city is committed to demolishing blighted houses, especially in the Seventh Ward, site of a proposed new elementary school.

About 15 to 18 houses in the Seventh Ward, a densely packed neighborhood along Versailles Avenue, will be torn down this year, the mayor says.

"We've been promising the people in that area for a long time that it would be done," Brewster says.

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