Tube City Almanac

October 20, 2006

Our House Is a Very, Very, Very Cheap House

Category: default || By jt3y

I saw something in the Valley Mirror the other day that made me laugh. Homestead Borough officials were excited because a bunch of new houses are being built on 13th Street.

Sorry. I don't mean to be a wet blanket, but I laughed.

Yeah, that's just what Homestead or any Mon Valley town needs --- some more houses. If it wasn't for that pesky thing called the U.S. Constitution, it might be a good idea to go through a lot of neighborhoods and tear down every third house.

I know someone in Our Fair City who's selling a house that they've lived in for most of their life, in a neighborhood that was pretty nice not very long ago.

It's still OK, but I'd say it's at the tipping point. Three houses on the street are vacant --- in one case the owner died, and the heirs haven't decided what to do with the property; in another, the owner is in a nursing home. The third is for sale.

By next week, there will be a fourth.

The problem in the fourth case is the house next door, which has been a rental property for almost 15 years. It's currently owned by a limited-liability corporation, which bought it cheap, and they rent it cheap, to whomever can scrape up two months' rent.

They've done no repairs beyond the minimum required. Consequently, they get whatever tenants they can.

The last tenants used the back yard as a garbage dump. With the tenants before them, the grass was usually too high to see if there was garbage there. The current tenants were recently busted for having 15 people in a single-family home.

I am told that the city has been actively involved in trying to keep the situation under control. Code-enforcement has cited the landlord many times. Yet the people I know have decided "enough is enough," and they're moving.

(Personally, I'd be damned if I'd let someone chase me out of my house. But I can't blame them.)

They're listing the house for $45,000, and they'll be lucky to get it --- especially if the prospective buyers visit when the hillbillies next door are sitting on the front porch smoking, drinking and carrying on.

In fact, chances are, some other real estate investment speculator or limited-liability company will buy their house, and rent it for a few hundred dollars a month.

Eventually, after making no repairs, they won't even be able to rent it, and they'll abandon it. If the neighbors are lucky, someone will come along and try to fix it up. If they're not lucky, the house will sit there until the city tears it down, at taxpayer expense.

Chances are at least one of those other three houses on the street that are vacant also will wind up as a rental. And the decline will accelerate as other neighbors give up and move. Lather, rinse, repeat.

That's how you wreck a neighborhood. Wreck enough neighborhoods, and you'll wreck a city.

Take Jenny Lind Street. I went to grade school at St. Mary's German on Olive Street, one block away. Back then, the houses on Jenny Lind were old, but the neighborhood was hanging on.

Walking or driving up Jenny Lind now makes my stomach hurt, and the rot has spread, year by year, block by block.

If I sound frustrated, I am, because I have no solutions to offer, and no observations other than obvious ones.

Bad Joe Pesci movies aside, you can't force someone to live in the properties they own. They have a legal right to rent them.

Although there are health and safety codes that can be enforced, there is no law that says a property has to be attractive, or that you can't rent it to obnoxious tenants.

These aren't McKeesport-specific problems, of course. You can see the same problems in Jeannette, Washington, Beaver Falls or any of the urban areas around here.

They're oversupplied with houses, and the supply increases every time some farm in Union Township or North Huntingdon gets plowed up for another residential development.

We need to increase the demand for the houses we have, and if I knew how to encourage people to move to the Mon Valley, I'd print it up on handbills and pass it out for free. We need to break this cycle.

First we need jobs, I guess, and the new Rite Aid going up on Walnut Street isn't exactly what I have in mind.

And we need some good people willing to take a chance on our communities and make an investment in one of the good older homes around here. Maybe instead of buying a half-acre McMansion for $500,000, they could buy a real mansion (we have a few) for $50,000.

There's no pithy punchline here --- just an attempt to stay positive on a cold and gloomy Friday.

. . .

To Do This Weekend: Hey! Why don't you move to the Mon Valley? We don't lack for amenities. There's country line dancing tonight at the Palisades, Fifth Avenue at Water Street. Call (412) 678-6979. ... Tomorrow, the McKeesport Symphony Orchestra opens its 2006-07 season with Rossini's Overture to La Gazza Ladra, Brahms's Hungarian Dances, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, and a special performance of a work by MSO composer-in-residence Todd Goodman. That's at 7:30 in the auditorium of McKeesport Area High School, 1960 Eden Park Blvd. Call (412) 664-2854. ... Or, you could twist your blues away with the Pittsburgh Area Jitterbug Club at the Palisades, starting at 8 p.m. Saturday. Call (412) 366-2138.

Your Comments are Welcome!

Tell me about it. I was the ordinance officer in Homestead from 1994-2003. The elected officials only cared about the Waterfront Development from its inception (about 1995). They were not the least concerned with the blighted structures (residential and commercial) that pox the community. I was stiffled by a Council that felt I was “picking on” (what I call) slum landlords, when I tried to do my job.

ps: taxpayer dollars (through the DCED) paid for those
new houses ($85,000+ each).
terry - October 20, 2006

I’ve yet to understand why every community with a falling population thinks the key to revitalization is to build new houses. (Pittsburgh, I’m looking at you.) I have no more ideas than you do, but the key is to find ways to preserve the existing housing stock—as you note—and find ways to encourage people to live in those homes. Yes, easier said than done. But vacant new homes aren’t much better than vacant old homes.

Also, unless Martin Scorcese is directing, “Bad Joe Pesci movie” is redundant.
Jonathan Potts (URL) - October 23, 2006

I think the key in areas such as our McKeesport, is to knock down the very bad structures and give the land (FOR FREE, and incorporate it into the deed, FOR FREE) to the property owners on each side. Though we do have alot of housing, some of it is just beyond repair, thanks to those who live in California, and rent it out to different bums every month for 10 years, never fixing it, and then just abandon it. If we were to start increasing the square footage of the properties, 1) we may entice more buyers, and 2)The taxes would be paid on that dirt, rather then a McKeesport redevelopement sign sitting on it for the next 20 years. No one is going to come in and build new houses in between the old, even if you change the codes to make it possible, but they may fix up a house if it has a decent size lot( i.e. – can be added onto, could add a garage, etc.) Let’s face it, Houses in mckeesport don’t have the largest yards. Maybe if they were just that much bigger, we could get some kids to play in them!
Adam Spate (URL) - October 27, 2006

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