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On the Brink: Could Polish Hill be on a verge of an upswing? 

click to enlarge Joseph Reichenbacher, pictured with his 3-year-old daughter, Lucha, and her best friend, Dore Ouldage, finally found a home in Polish Hill after spending about five years looking. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Joseph Reichenbacher, pictured with his 3-year-old daughter, Lucha, and her best friend, Dore Ouldage, finally found a home in Polish Hill after spending about five years looking.

At first blush, Polish Hill wouldn't seem like a particularly hot real-estate market. Nestled between the Strip District, the Hill District, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield and North Oakland, Polish Hill is an often-forgotten neighborhood of fewer than 1,500 people. According to the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, more than one in 10 of its properties are either abandoned buildings or vacant lots -- a vacancy rate nearly twice that of the city as a whole.

But try telling Joseph Reichenbacher the market is depressed.

Reichenbacher, who first moved to Polish Hill as a squatter, had been looking to purchase housing there off and on for the past five years. Eventually, he took the unorthodox step of printing up hundreds of bookmark-sized fliers and dropping them in neighborhood mailboxes.

"I have been having trouble finding a house," the fliers explained. "If you new [sic] of someone who has been thinking about selling their house would you pass along my contact info. Thank you."

After dropping the fliers in just about every Polish Hill mailbox, Reichenbacher said he was "on the phone for two days straight" with people responding to his plea. "Not every phone call was from the owners," he says. "Neighbors called about places that were empty, too."

Potential sellers had lots of reasons for wanting to get rid of their property. "People's kids have grown up and moved out, or they are moving to a nursing home, or their husband died," Reichenbacher says. "A lot of it was transition due to aging: Polish Hill loves steps and old people don't." But not everyone was anxious to part with his or her property: "A lot of people want to know that their stuff is going into good hands."

Still, eventually Reichenbacher was able to find three parcels he could buy. And by one measure, at least, property in the neighborhood is moving faster this year than it has at any time in the past several years. According to a check of the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) for real estate, it's been taking just over one month for a Polish Hill property to be sold after it is first put up for sale. Last year, it took roughly four months, and in 2005 and 2004 it took between two and three months.

Could Polish Hill be the next South Side or Lawrenceville?

Well, probably not. But neighborhood advocates say the tide could be turning.

In some areas, a quick turnover in property would be a sign of a huge demand; in Polish Hill's case, it's at least partly due to a lack in supply.

"There isn't a lot available," says Justin Cummings, a Realtor with Howard Hanna. This year, for example, only eight Polish Hill properties have been listed for sale; Bloomfield and Lawrenceville have put 52 and 139 houses on the block, respectively.

But Cummings says that when clients do want to live in Polish Hill, it isn't easy to find a place.

Two of his clients, he says, hoped to stay in Polish Hill; they waited for six months before making an offer on a house. The first day it came on the market, they competed with two other offers and were outbid. A month-and-a-half later, they finally bought a house at full price, the first day it came on the market.

"There is an increased interest in the neighborhood," claims Catherine McConnell, a Polish Hill resident and Realtor with Coldwell Banker. She said that she thinks the interest is being driven by increasing prices in neighboring Lawrenceville and Bloomfield.

Unlike those increasingly trendy neighborhoods, "Polish Hill is still mostly a bargain," she contends. "The affordability, proximity to the universities and Downtown, and the views are key factors in recent interest," she wrote in an e-mail.

One Polish Hill newcomer, Jeremy Morrow, ended up moving there partly by accident. Originally, he wanted to stay in Lawrenceville and the home he ended up buying was at first wrongly listed as Lawrenceville. Now that he's in Polish Hill, "I don't have enough good things to say about this neighborhood," he said. "It's a special place."

That's music to the ears of Terry Doloughty, president of the Polish Hill Civic Association. "We have a chance to build the future," he says.

Still, Doloughty has no illusions about the challenges his organization faces.

For one thing, he says, "Housing is not everything" -- and the community's business district has withered to a handful of shops on Brereton Avenue. The neighborhood is being rezoned to expand the opportunities for business investment, and Doloughty has big dreams: "Instead of check-cashing and liquor stores, we could have cool coffee shops or a pierogie store."

Still, the reality is harsh. "You aren't going to have businesses spend a lot of money when the building next to it is vacant -- and residents aren't as likely to move in because there aren't businesses," he says. "It's a catch-22." Some 165 buildings or lots -- more than 10 percent of its properties -- are vacant. And every vacant property can be "a magnet for drug-dealing, vagrancy, fire hazards and midnight plumbers that steal copper out of buildings," Doloughty adds. One empty building, he says, can be "a diseased cell in the neighborhood."

Marcus Visco, owner of one of the few neighborhood businesses, Gooski's bar, also owns five rental properties nearby. He says he bought them to reinvest in the neighborhood. "It's a quiet neighborhood. It's close to everything," he says. He believes that certain small businesses could be sustainable in Polish Hill, but the biggest problem is vacant properties. The profusion of such lots "crushes the neighborhood," Visco laments.

Most of those vacant properties are empty due to foreclosure, says Bethany Davidson, PCRG's regional policy manager, and manager of its Vacant Property Working Group. Homeowners simply are no longer capable of meeting mortgage or tax payments, and the homes are repossessed. In such cases, the neighborhood doesn't lose just a resident -- the home itself often drops below the radar, making it hard for potential new residents to find it. "If I were an individual looking for a home," says Davidson, "I wouldn't know where to go ... besides on-the-market property."

PHCA seeks to help fend off foreclosure in the first place, but also to help groups like the PHCA acquire land once the owner defaults.

With one of the three properties that Joseph Reichenbacher has under contract, he hopes to bring new investment to the neighborhood: His Project 53 Musician Resource Center, currently run out of a handful of basements, provides a free music library, instruments and lessons for kids. He hopes that it will expand to include activities like recording and silk screening. He also plans to connect potential sellers with close friends who are interested in buying places in Polish Hill.

"[Polish Hill] is one of the last real hopes for community and ... working towards a common goal -- a more self-reliant existence," he said. He is, in fact, concerned about what might happen to Polish Hill if it becomes a trendy place to live. "I want a diverse neighborhood. I'm really afraid of gentrification."

But such concerns seem remote in Polish Hill, at least for now.

To date, no one has unveiled any million-dollar plans, or calls for an artist commune, or calls for anything else. Doloughty would just like to see Polish Hill's real-estate market catch up with what's happening in neighborhoods next door.

"I don't think we're ever going to be building mansions in Polish Hill," he says.

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