Harrisburg – March 26, 2021 – At the request of state Senators Wayne D. Fontana (D- Allegheny), Jim Brewster (D- Allegheny/Westmoreland), Lindsey Williams (D- Allegheny) and Representative Sara Innamorato (D-Allegheny), the Pennsylvania Senate and House Democratic Policy Committees held a virtual public hearing on the issues of abandoned and blighted property conservatorship, the effect of blight on neighborhoods, and tools to eradicate blight while preserving the integrity of communities.

“Making sure that blight does not continue to bring down our thriving communities is of the utmost importance,” Sen. Fontana said. “The premise of Act 135 and all blight remediation legislation are overall positive and essential to eliminating blight.  The purpose of this hearing is to examine the act to make sure the law is being used for its intended purpose and make any necessary changes to achieve this goal.”

Act 135 of 2008, the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act, was passed in Pennsylvania to allow responsible owners to take over empty buildings that have become eyesores in neighborhoods for years. Owners are required to act under court supervision, however, there have been housing developers in recent years that have taken advantage of Act 135 cheaply acquire properties.

“I have been an advocate of this kind of blight removal legislation over the years, because run-down and abandoned buildings hamper local communities as they implement development initiatives and attract new opportunities to the area,” said Sen. Brewster. “The legislation discussed today is necessary to support community revitalization efforts and to build stability throughout the region.”

There have been many community organizations and municipalities who have used act 135 to rehabilitate blighted properties and allowed easier access to affordable home ownership to underserved communities. But there are still concerns that in rehabilitating these properties, these neighborhoods are being gentrified.  

Brewster said that he expects there to be changes to Act 135 of 2008 after the testimony heard at the policy hearing today.

Ernie Hogan, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group (PCRG) said, “Since the passing and amendment of the legislation, there have been abuses of the law that have emerged, resulting in lost equity, lost access, and damaging speculation. Our members have told us loud and clear that many neighborhoods have seen unscrupulous investors surface with the desire to speculate and flip real estate, in some cases competing with local neighborhoods organizations.”

“Another shared theme in the tragic story of blight includes the concentration of these properties in areas of existing high poverty and low property values. Places like my neighborhood – far too long ignored by the private market and public investment alike,” Diamonte Walker, Deputy Executive Director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh, said.

“Once it gets started, this vicious cycle of abandonment and blight, leading to further abandonment and blight, is hard to stop. Not to mention that our current ability to reverse the cycle without sparking gentrification is a feat that too rarely occurs,” Walker continued.

Walker emphasized that the issue of blight does fall more heavily on communities of color, and that if the resources are not given directly to the communities that blight and devaluation of property are affecting, this issue will persist. She said that she has been working with Sen. Fontana on changes to the Municipal Claims and Tax Lien Law (MCTLL) to provide for an expedited Sherriff Sale process, currently only available to the City of Philadelphia. Legislation extending this option to Pittsburgh would dramatically enhance the ability of the City, URA, and the land bank to return vacant, abandoned, and tax delinquent property to productive use.

Winnie Branton, Founder and President of Branton Strategies, L.L.C, also spoke about the importance of land banks in Pennsylvania to combat blight and revitalize neighborhoods. A land bank is a governmental entity whose mission is to convert vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties to productive use. In Pennsylvania, a land bank operates similar to how an area housing authority would. Land banks were established in Pennsylvania by Act 153 of 2012, and there are currently 29 land banks throughout the commonwealth.

As the sergeant in charge of sheriff sales for the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office, Gina Dascola said that her office is very happy working with the Tri-COG land bank  in Allegheny County because it allows them to waive certain fees and tax liens associated with a sheriff sale of a property helps foreclosed properties get rehabilitated more quickly.

While Mandi Culhane, Shareholder with the Pittsburgh based law firm GRB Law, said that waiving tax liens is detrimental to municipalities and their finances, both Ernie Hogan of PCRG and Diamonte Walker of URA disagreed.

Hogan and Walker believe that is more beneficial to communities, and the financial situations of municipalities, to rehabilitate blighted homes and properties to make housing more affordable and get more responsible homeowners on municipal tax rolls.

Gerald Driggs, Director of the Upper Allegheny Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC) said that his organization does not even utilize blight conservatorship as it is currently written into law in Pennsylvania because his organization finds the process too complicated and too expensive.

Driggs and his CDC adopted a strategy called ‘Proactive Blight Remediation’.

“We see blight remediation as a continuum that ranges from demolition to returning a blighted building to the tax rolls while meeting community needs and priorities and creating a viable community asset,” Driggs said.

Driggs also advocated in his testimony for ‘Spot Blight Eminent Domain.’ This form of eminent domain is a tool for a municipality under very specific and regulated circumstances, to take individual properties for redevelopment or rehabilitation, and is designed to transfer blighted properties to responsible new owners in a short timeframe with limited administrative overhead.

“So many of our local municipalities struggle with cost-effective ways to manage blighted properties in a way that both improves the safety and appearance of their neighborhoods and moves these properties off of the delinquent tax rolls,” Sen. Lindsey Williams said. “Learning more about how we as legislators can effectively remove barriers and lower costs for our municipalities while balancing the rights of current property owners, if they exist, and protecting historic properties has been incredibly useful. I’m looking forward to putting this knowledge into legislative action that will help our local leaders and communities.”

“Blight conservatorship, housing equity, and making sure that the laws we have passed here in the legislature are truly serving communities is so important,” Sen. Katie Muth (D-Berks/Chester/Montgomery), chair of the Senate Policy committee, said.  “I am grateful for the testifiers here today for presenting possible options on how we can improve polices to eliminate neighborhood blight while still protecting communities.”

Below are all who testified in today’s hearing:

The full recording of this hearing can be found at senatormuth.com/policy or on the PA Senate Democratic Facebook.