Blight in the region is responsible for significant losses to property values and tax revenues, while simultaneously driving away businesses. Despite the seriousness of the problem, local officials struggle to establish an effective strategy to address the issues.
"In many cases, local officials are unaware of many of the new – and old – tools available to them to fight blight," says Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.
Recognizing this, the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania began advocating for changes to state law to empower communities affected by blight. These efforts lead to the passage of seven new laws to address blighted and abandoned property between 2004 and 2011.
In 2014, with the support of the Benedum Foundation, the Housing Alliance released "From Blight to Bright: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Pennsylvania," which provides tools for preventing and eliminating blight, while also addressing vacant and abandoned properties.
"We wanted to make it easier for local officials to find their way forward," Hersh explains. "What can you legally do? Where do you start and how do you pay for it?"
"From Blight to Bright" was even more successful than anticipated. Hersh says there has been a "tremendous appetite" for training and information on fighting blight. "Since the publication of the toolkit, the Alliance has had dozens of requests to come out and conduct briefings. It has over 56,000 page views on the PA Blight Library website."
Publication of Blight to Bright was also the inspiration for a comprehensive online and in-person training course — Fight Blight Brightly — developed by the Local Government Academy which provides a more in-depth, hands-on application of the tools through an interactive format.
The Housing Alliance's manual points out that targeted, data-driven code enforcement can help distinguish between property owners who are unaware of or unable to deal with the problem, and those who intend to neglect their responsibilities. This approach is based in data from a report conducted by The Reinvestment Fund that found that with targeted code enforcement escalating to the threat of private asset attachment and blight court home sale prices rose by as much as 32% in a year.
Hersh advocates a "progressive discipline" approach. "Start with education and working collaboratively with people in the community, then for those who are not compliant there are increasing fines; for people who flout the law, officials need to gather the data and get in front of the magistrate to make a case. We need to have zero tolerance for blight."
Another solution highlighted in the manual is the establishment of Land Banks. Land Banks acquire property that has no current demand. They then clear the title, and transfer it to a new owner, sometimes attaching conditions for its use. The PA Land Bank Bill authorizes counties and municipalities with populations over 10,000 to establish land banks.
Through its advocacy efforts, the Housing Alliance aims to promote the development of Land Banks. According to Hersh, "the Housing Alliance is working with the Department of Community and Economic Development to provide training and technical assistance to communities all over the state about land banking and how to establish land banks."
All throughout the region, blight not only keeps potentially viable land unused, but also drives away businesses looking to establish themselves, or relocate from a different area. Often, vacant or dilapidated buildings drive down the property values of the entire block or neighborhood.
Hersh discussed the possibility of more regional cooperation. "We are really hoping over the next year or two to bring community leaders from Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania together to look at the issues and lessons learned in fighting blight."