Both people and land lie at the heart of community. It is the people who create the relationships, the dreams, the spirit, and the culture. It is the land that creates the place and the space. As human relationships are constantly evolving through times of nurture and growth and times of conflict and discord, so too are our uses of land. We are dependent on other people, yet we are also dependent on land. We are stewards of land, and it supports and protects us; we neglect and abuse land, and it soon mirrors our fractured community.

--- Frank S. Alexander, Sam Nunn Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law and cofounder of the Center for Community Progress

Today communities throughout Pennsylvania are fighting to reclaim their blighted, abandoned land, through code enforcement, land banks, demolition, rehabilitation, by creating pocket parks, urban gardens, side yards, homes or shops. An essential paradigm shift has taken place. Instead of accepting that blighted, abandoned property is an immutable part of our landscape, Pennsylvanians throughout the state are demanding more. They are taking these properties from liability to viability.

For Pennsylvania’s communities to thrive, the roughly 300,000 vacant properties in the state must be put into productive reuse. Many abandoned eyesores can become side yards or small parks. Others can be redeveloped as homes or businesses. Some can help with storm water management or provide a way to reduce homelessness. 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 local economy, and that we replace them with usable and useful properties that add value to our neighborhoods and Main Streets.

Today there is a body of research documenting what we know in our hearts to be true: that blight hurts communities, imperils children, is a haven for crime and brings down property values. Blight is a reminder of failure.

But what can we do?

Over the past decade, Pennsylvania has expanded the tools available to local governments to fight blight. The tools generally fall into two categories. The first includes tools that employ progressive code enforcement—escalating the fines and penalties imposed on properties to achieve code compliance and to abate violations. The second includes tools to address long-term vacant properties that pose a threat to the health and safety of communities when code enforcement has been ineffective.

This manual presents the most effective tools available to Pennsylvania’s local governments to return vacant properties to productive use. The goal is to provide community leaders, local government staff and elected officials with information sufficient to weigh and consider the tools. For each tool, the manual 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.

Section 1 shows how to ensure that enforceable laws are in place to prevent and eliminate blight and to use code enforcement strategies that are progressive and based on data.

Section 2 presents tools directed to properties that have long-term vacancies and endanger a community’s health and safety.


The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania first began working on blighted and abandoned property in 2003 with the publication of “Reclaiming Abandoned Pennsylvania” which laid out a comprehensive legislative agenda of state level actions that, if adopted, would make it faster, easier and cheaper for local communities to address blight. Today, in 2014, many of those recommendations have become reality. The author of that analysis and this manual is the immensely talented Karen Black, principle of May 8th Consulting. The partnership between the Housing Alliance and Karen has provided a powerful combination of a well-conceived, research-based framework and effective statewide advocacy to promote its adoption.

Unlike many other states, the legislature in Harrisburg has provided consistent, informed and intrepid leadership to adopt an anti-blight agenda. They have forged partnerships across the divides of urban, suburban and rural, Republican and Democrat, House and Senate to put our communities first, enacting sensible, flexible and useful laws.

Among the many notable champions in the legislature are the Chairmen, past and present, of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Urban Affairs Committee: State Representatives John Taylor, Chris Ross, Curtis Thomas and Tom Petrone. Similarly, the Chairmen of the Pennsylvania Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committees, past and present, have led the charge: State Senators Gene Yaw, Dominic Pileggi, Dave Argall, the late Jim Rhoades, Shirley Kitchen and Jim Brewster. Pennsylvania House and Senate staff has provided guidance, perseverance and skill needed to take a shared vision and make it a reality. We gratefully acknowledge the tireless work of those executive directors past and present: Christine Goldbeck, John Castelli, Diane Warriner and Melissa Raffensperger in the House; John Hopcraft, Adam Pancake, Nick Troutman and Sara Cassin in the senate. Mary Beth Dougherty in Senator Argall’s office has been steadfast in her commitment to reclaiming coal country and helping the rest of us along the way.

Cynthia Witman Daley, Policy Director for the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania has provided the skillful, steady hand to needed to forge compromise while maintaining the essence of the legislative intent that makes it possible to move bills from concept to reality. Irene McLaughlin, former magistrate, mediator and great legal mind, has provided technical assistance throughout.

Finally, funding for this work has been provided by a range of philanthropies over the years: The Pew Charitable Trusts funded the original analysis published in 2003. The William Penn Foundation supported our research, coalition building, education and outreach for more than ten years. The Heinz Endowments recognized that cities that could better tackle blight could reduce suburban green-space development pressures. Both the national Ford and Surdna Foundations contributed over the years to this body of work.

Special thanks are due to the Benedum Foundation for funding the development and writing of this manual and to Jim Denova who made it happen because he thought it mattered.

We thank Susan Hockenberry of the Local Government Academy and Court Gould of Sustainable Pittsburgh for the partnership that led to the publication of this manual.

Onward to reclaiming abandoned Pennsylvania.