Getting Started: What We Know About Blight
Every official, resident, and business owner in every Pennsylvania community can agree on one fact: for Pennsylvania communities to thrive, a majority of the roughly 300,000 vacant properties in the Commonwealth must be put into productive reuse. As we have all learned, blight is bad for business and bad for quality of life. Many abandoned eyesores can become side yards or small parks. Others can be redeveloped as homes or businesses. But regardless of how properties will be reused, it is imperative that we eliminate the blight that vacant, untended properties impose on our communities and that we replace them with usable and useful properties that add value to our neighborhoods. It is a big job; it took global economic shifts, the creation of the modern suburb, and the failure of whole industries to get us where we are today. But we can change the culture of blight by aggressively, consistently, and proactively using all the tools available under Pennsylvania law to reactivate such properties and remove their blighting influences.
The status quo is not an option. Vacant properties create significant costs for local government, decrease community safety, and deter investment. Returning vacant properties to productive use presents a critical ingredient to revitalize Pennsylvania’s towns and cities. Vacant properties provide the land and structures needed to create new amenities, to inject an aging housing stock with modern alternatives, and to help businesses expand.
Over the past decade, the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania has worked with the state to pass new laws that will help in the fight against blight. In addition, we have partnered with municipalities, residents, redevelopment authorities, and nonprofits throughout Pennsylvania that are working each day to reduce blight in their communities. Although many local governments and residents feel powerless to stop blight from expanding, the tools available to combat blight are growing, as are the successful uses of those tools in communities across the Commonwealth.
This manual presents the most effective tools available to Pennsylvania local governments to return vacant properties to productive use. For each tool, it provides a description, the problem it is intended to solve, the actions needed for implementation, and suggestions for how to most effectively use and finance the tool.
The manual also provides examples of jurisdictions that have adopted the tools, along with sample documents from the jurisdictions’ ordinances and programs. The manual does not provide legal advice or take the place of a solicitor’s opinion. The parties involved should seek legal advice specific to the properties and processes in their jurisdictions. Rather, the goal of this manual is to provide local government staff and elected officials with information sufficient to weigh and consider each tool.
Most of the heavy lifting for removing blight and returning vacant properties to productive reuse is done at the local level. We are learning from one another. This manual fosters the exchange of information and experience from local efforts.
The High Cost of Blight
Vacant properties impose significant costs on municipalities. The residents of every municipality in Pennsylvania suffer when blight reduces property values, tax revenues, and the quality of life. Two recent studies quantify the costs of blight and vacant properties to local communities. In 2013, the Tri-COG Collaborative in the Mon Valley(1), made up of 41 municipalities, calculated that blight and vacant properties cost their municipalities $11 million a year in direct costs for municipal services and $9 million a year in lost tax revenue. Blight lowers the values of surrounding properties, resulting in the annual loss of an additional $8 to $10 million in local tax collections. Also, the loss associated with the lack of economic development and reinvestment is $11,812,644 in construction impacts (one-time) and another $8,284,294 annually in ongoing impacts.(2) A 2010 study of Philadelphia found that the city spends $21 million each year to maintain vacant properties and to provide police and fire protection, pest control, and waste cleanup. Vacant properties need substantially more investment of police and fire resources than occupied properties, because they are often the sites of crime and arson or accidental fires. A significant number of Philadelphia’s vacant properties are tax delinquent, resulting in the loss of $2 million in uncollected property taxes each year. But the greatest financial cost is the $3.6 billion in lost household wealth as vacant properties reduce the value of each nearby property by an average of $8,000.(3)
Eliminating Blight Reduces Crime, Improves Health, and Increases Property Values and Tax Revenues
Fighting blight is a proven method to increase tax revenues to government, increase the wealth that residents possess in their homes, reduce crime, and improve the health of residents. A 2014 study of an anti-blight program in Philadelphia called the Windows and Doors Program found that the program increased surrounding real property values by millions of dollars.(4) Under the Windows and Doors Program, the city fined the owners of long-term vacant structures that had openings not covered by functional windows or doors. The study, conducted by the Reinvestment Fund, found that properties that complied with citations created $74 million in sales prices for surrounding properties. The increased value resulted in $2.34 million in additional transfer tax revenue to the city (see online appendix). Studies by the University of Pennsylvania give conclusive evidence that eliminating blight from vacant properties through greening or redevelopment increases surrounding property values by up to 30% in certain neighborhoods(5), markedly reduces gun-related violence(6), and improves the health and exercise habits of residents while reducing their stress.(7)
Blight Elimination Efforts
Blight elimination efforts can be divided into four critical categories.
One: Enforceable Legal Framework
Municipalities need to enact codes and laws that affirmatively require owners to maintain and care for their properties. Many of the tools described in this manual are state authorized. Even with state authorization, however, it is advisable for municipalities to pass ordinances that include clear definitions and policies for how the state law will be implemented. (Sample local ordinances are available in the online appendix.)
Municipalities also have significant power to enact laws and regulations for locally authorized interventions aimed at vacant properties. So, for example, a municipality can enact a quality-of-life ticketing ordinance that allows it to fine property violations without a hearing (like traffic tickets). In other cases, a municipality may choose to proactively adopt a model code, such as the International Property Maintenance Code, which would give it the authority to inspect and fine properties that have uncut grass or trash in the yard. Each of those tools is outlined in this manual, and each tool summary includes the legal documents and other prerequisites that a municipality must have in place before enforcing a new requirement.
Of course a law or regulation is only as good as its enforcement. The past few decades in Pennsylvania have made clear that the traditional approach of relying on complaint-driven inspections is not sufficient to eliminate blight. Municipalities must proactively enforce code enforcement laws in a consistent, transparent manner to ensure that every property satisfies code requirements. Vacant properties must be checked regularly, and occupied properties must be the subject of regular exterior inspections. The licensing fees and fines required under each law can finance the program’s implementation.
Finally, it is essential to create a database and collect data on every inspection, citation, and fine imposed on each property. Then, if it becomes necessary to elevate the case against a particular property to the courts or to use a stronger, less popular tool, the record is clear that the property has been in repeated violation of the law, and that despite continual attempts to bring the property up to code, blighted conditions remain.
Two: Targeting Limited Resources and Collaborating to Enforce the Law
Every municipality in Pennsylvania has limited resources. Identifying the three to five poorly maintained properties that have the greatest negative impact in a community allows municipalities to create detailed plans to enforce the laws against those properties before moving on to others. Not only does focusing resources and attention on the very worst properties eliminate the blight they create; but publicity about actions taken against such properties can motivate other owners to bring their properties into code compliance.
Similarly, using this manual to understand which tools will be most effective in addressing a community’s blight is critical. There is no magic bullet. Each tool offers a different approach, with varying costs and risks. Talking with solicitors, assistant district attorneys, magistrates, and district justices about the significant costs that blighted properties impose on municipalities and their residents, and about the laws that have been passed to help municipalities address them is crucial to creating the teams needed to reduce blight. The reality is that the condition of vacant properties is a major driver of crime; lawyers, prosecutors, and the judiciary play a crucial role in enforcing codes. Several jurisdictions have worked with the courts to assign a single jurist to hear all property-related cases so that they can become familiar with repeat offenders and the penalties available (see blight court tool).
Finally, it is important to educate property owners about their important contributions to clean, safe, attractive communities and to ensure that no properties fail to satisfy code because the owners do not know what is expected of them. Municipalities can achieve better-maintained properties by giving all owners the knowledge they need to bring their properties into compliance with the laws.
Three: Compliance and Changing the Culture
Many long-term vacant properties have been in poor condition for years or even decades. Making clear that the municipality will enforce a higher standard for the condition of those properties is crucial to changing the culture and setting an expectation that the exteriors of all properties must be well tended and cared for. A progressive-discipline approach that imposes consistent penalties on properties that violate codes and increases fines and penalties over time is most effective. It is also essential to tailor tools and their penalties to the conditions of properties and the owners’ abilities to bring them into code compliance. The harshest fines and penalties should be reserved for absentee owners who have clear assets but refuse to invest in their properties. Harsh treatment of owners who lack sufficient resources may only cause them to walk away. Where properties are in poor condition partly or wholly because of their owners’ limited financial resources, assistance programs may be needed to facilitate repairs.
Four: Transfer Worst Properties to Responsible New Owners
When a property affects a community’s health and safety and remains in blighted condition despite regular fines and penalties, it may be time to transfer the property to a responsible new owner, using conservatorship, eminent domain, or another tool in this manual. Taking that step with even one property—the worst of the worst—has the benefit of creating a tangible threat that will encourage owners to improve other properties.
The challenges that vacant properties present have been with us for decades but resist easy solutions. Since 2003, the Housing Alliance has been working to increase the state-authorized tools to fight blight. Over the same decade, Pennsylvania municipalities have aggressively created and refined locally authorized tools. This manual attempts to provide information about each tool so as to create a catalog of potential strategies that municipalities can use to eliminate blight and bring vacant properties into productive reuse.
- The Tri-COG comprises the 41 member communities within the Steel Valley COG, Turtle Creek Valley COG, and Twin Rivers COG. The 41 communities are Braddock Borough, Braddock Hills Borough, Chalfant Borough, Churchill Borough, Clairton City, Dravosburg Borough, Duquesne City, East McKeesport Borough, East Pittsburgh Borough, Edgewood Borough, Elizabeth Borough, Forest Hills Borough, Forward Township, Glassport Borough, Homestead Borough, Liberty Borough, Lincoln Borough, McKeesport City, Monroeville Municipality, Munhall Borough, North Braddock Borough, North Versailles Township, Penn Hills Township, Pitcairn Borough, Plum Borough, Port Vue Borough, Rankin Borough, South Versailles Township, Swissvale Borough, Turtle Creek Borough, Versailles Borough, Wall Borough, West Elizabeth Borough, West Homestead Borough, West Mifflin Borough, West Newton Borough, Whitaker Borough, White Oak Borough, Wilkins Township, Wilkinsburg Borough, and Wilmerding Borough.
- “Financial Impact of Blight on the Tri-COG Communities” (September 2013), http://www.housingalliancepa.org/node/1501.
- “Vacant Land Management in Philadelphia: The Costs of the Current System and the Benefits of Reform” (November 2010), http://may8consulting.com/pub_16.html.
- Executive Summary: Strategic Property Code Enforcement and Impacts on Surrounding Markets, The Reinvestment Fund (2014) http://www.rhls.org/wp-content/uploads/Strategic_Property_Code_Enforcement.pdf
- Susan M Wachter, Grace Wong (2008), “What Is a Tree Worth? Green City Strategies and Housing Prices”, Real Estate Economics, 2008, 213–239; Susan Wachter, The Determinants of Neighborhood Transformations in Philadelphia—Identification and Analysis: The New Kensington Pilot Study, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania (Spring 2005). http://www.kabaffiliates.org/uploadedFiles/KAB_Affiliates.org/Wharton%20Study%20NK%20final.pdf.
- Branas CC, Gracia N, Rubin D, Guo W: “Vacant Properties and Violence in Neighborhoods.” ISRN Public Health 2012: 1–23, 2012; Garvin E, Branas CC, Cannuscio CC: “Greening Vacant Lots to Reduce Violent Crime: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Injury Prevention 18(5): 1–6, 2012.
- Garvin E, Branas CC, Keddem S, Sellman J, Cannuscio C: “More Than Just an Eyesore: Local Insights and Solutions on Vacant Land and Urban Health.” Journal of Urban Health 12(7): 9782-7, 2012; Branas CC, Cheney RA, MacDonald JM, Tam VW, Jackson TD, Ten Have TR: A Difference-in-Differences Analysis of Health, Safety, and Greening Vacant Urban Space. American Journal of Epidemiology 174: 1-11, 2011.