Broken Homes | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Broken Homes 

With vacant houses blighting swaths of the city, neighborhood activists are working on their abandonment issues.

"You're risking your life," Judith Ginyard calls from the road. 

Glass from a missing picture-window crunches on the front porch of 1372 Montezuma St. in Lincoln-Lemington. There's a notice on the door from a locksmith warning that the locks of this house were changed sometime in 2002 -- perhaps from a landlord shutting out a tenant, perhaps from a foreclosure. But there's not even a doorknob left today. Both doors push right open. Ginyard, who heads community development efforts in this neighborhood, waits outside to see what's inside this abandoned house. Trash' Squatters' Drug addicts' Animals' Worse'

Inside, the first-floor rooms have been stripped; even the flooring is gone from the kitchen. A jar of keys is overturned at the top of the basement stairs; from below, in the dark, comes the sound of running water.

Upstairs, it seems as if a family has fled in a hurry. Linens spill from a closet; Christmas pictures from 2000, labeled neatly on the back, lie stacked in the hallway. Above them, on the window frame, is a pill bottle with the name of the last tenant -- call her Charlene. The largest bedroom is bare, save for several stuffed animals hanging on wall hooks and a small plaque beside the stark bed frame: "God grant me the serenity &" it begins. But in another bedroom video games are scattered on the floor; a pair of children's shoes huddles in the corner of the smallest room, beside a mattress piled with clothes. 

Charlene is not hard to find; she sits on the front porch of a nearby house. She was forced to move out last July, she says. She remembers getting official notices to move, but she's not sure if they had anything to do with foreclosure. She was a renter, after all, not the owner.

"It was a nice house -- 10 rooms," she says.

Ever seen anyone going inside, now that it's vacant'

No, she says.

But of course someone has been inside the abandoned house at 1372 Montezuma many times -- may have been inside that morning, may be inside again tonight. Three large sacks of dog food are propped against the living-room wall, one of them half-empty. In the kitchen a bicycle sits upside-down, its wheels taken off the frame and carefully set aside, as if for repair. And the floors upstairs are covered with excrement -- presumably the result of all that dog food. It isn't fresh, but it isn't ancient either.

If you want to know what happened to the house, Charlene says, call owner Lizzie Topeck.

Topeck, 66, lives in Penn Hills. 

"Did they mess it up'" Topeck asks. "Being my age, it doesn't feel good" to lose a house, she says. She hasn't been back to see the place in many months. She and her husband Howard bought it in 1964, lived in it for 30 years and then rented it out for a while. The couple filed for bankruptcy a few months ago; she blames lax tenants for part of her financial woes. 

"It hurt so bad to lose it," she says. "I wanted to go back to cut the grass. I don't know what I'm supposed to do now that it doesn't belong to me."

Who does it belong to'

"The mortgage people," Howard Topeck says.

Did they foreclose'

"I don't know what they did," he says.

The Topecks' mortgage company, Mortgage Lenders Network USA in Middletown, Conn., in fact does not own the property and never foreclosed, says Richard Lavigna, vice president of default servicing for MLN. "I don't know that we will foreclose," Lavigna says. "I think we're looking for another resolution with the owner. They do own it. They may have walked away &" He won't say what MLN might do with the house's mounting debts -- for reasons of privacy, he says.

The Allegheny County property Web site still lists the Topecks as owners -- with 2003 property taxes paid by somebody. Perhaps, as is common, the taxes were paid through their mortgage's holding (or "escrow") account one year ahead. There's no telling what will happen next year if no one's paying 2004 taxes today.

Irene McLaughlin, judge of the city's housing court for the last 10 years until this past February, says she saw situations identical to the Topecks' "over and over again. People would appear in housing court and say, 'I gave up this property when I had to file for bankruptcy. The bank told us we had to get out. They changed the locks. I haven't had anything to do with that property for years.'" 

But mortgage companies often file successful motions in court that allow them to keep collecting on their debt, even when the homeowner is bankrupt. According to McLaughlin, "The city would be tracking down these owners who would say, 'I have nothing to do with these properties' and I'd have to say, 'You know, you do.' They are the proud owner of this place that has been vandalized and ripped apart. It was amazing how often that happened."

In the end, the stories of these abandoned houses -- complicated or clear, understandable or inexplicable -- end the same way: an empty house.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a block where you don't have an abandoned property," says Judith Ginyard as she drives away from Montezuma Street. "You just learn to live with it. Sometimes it's hard to tell what's abandoned and what's just not kept."

The causes of the disease are easier to see. 

"You have to look at the conditions in the neighborhood," she says. "No businesses. No businesses, no jobs. No jobs, no investment of community money, no government services -- decline. That's it."

There are many similar houses on many similar streets in Pittsburgh, and many houses at similar impasses. Some are owned by people who for one reason or another do not think they are homeowners anymore, or who do not want to be. Some are owned by people who have given up on paying their mortgages and their taxes, on maintaining their lawns and their lives in the manner they once hoped. Other houses are held by absentee owners who sucked as much income as they could from a rental property and moved on. Some owners lived all their lives in a house they loved, and repaired as best they could, only to leave it to no one when they died -- or to no one who cared.

Not all empty homes are abandoned, of course. In one section of East Liberty -- Mellon's Orchard -- community activists estimate that, among vacant homes, only 36 percent are "likely abandoned," as compared to 41 percent citywide. The rest are for sale, or for rent. Pennsylvania Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that there are upwards of 15,000 untended and uninhabitable houses in the City of Pittsburgh -- roughly 10 percent of our 150,000-plus homes.

"Once you see someone stop paying their taxes, the next step is usually some form of decay," observes Grant Ervin, administrator of the Vacant Properties Working Group, which helps community development corporations (CDCs) like Judith Ginyard's with housing solutions -- taking advantage of city programs funding rehabilitation and new house construction, for instance. Abandoned houses are such a hot-button issue for the city that there are workshops for CDC members and other housing developers seemingly every few weeks now, including a day-long symposium June 6 (see News Briefs, p. XX).

All houses in their death throes face similar fates, going from eyesore to public nuisance, from drug haven to fire trap and shelter for homeless creatures with any number of legs. But the biggest and longest-lasting disaster caused by an abandoned home comes when it reduces the life expectancy of neighboring houses on its street. It slashes any neighborhood's property values and, worst of all, becomes a vector for the contagion of blight. 

It's not easy to resuscitate these properties. The simple act of paying property taxes on an otherwise vacant and dilapidated structure can indefinitely keep that house from being taken by the city and sold at treasurer's sale -- the equivalent of the county "sheriff's sale." The taxes are minimal on some of these properties, which are already run down and in the poorest neighborhoods.

But even the minimal is too much for some owners.

Ervin spreads out a map of tax-delinquent properties in the city on a conference table in his Hill District office. Each red patch represents a lien -- the city's dibs on the debt from unpaid taxes, which would come off the top of any profit from a property's eventual sale. Like most debts, these liens carry interest and penalties, which accumulate as long as they are unpaid. But after the debt accumulates for a number of years, the cost of paying off such liens can exceed the actual value of the property. Eventually, it's as if the unpaid bills had destroyed the house. 

Not that such a move would get rid of the debt; even when a property is demolished, its liens remain and keep growing.

"Everywhere you see a red dot is prohibiting a developer from purchasing a property," Ervin says. "It's easier to go beyond the city boundaries because there is no history in the property. It's easier to acquire 50 acres in Cranberry than to acquire five houses in Homewood, for the developer."

The red, like some illness, has infected some neighborhoods more than others: Manchester, Perry Hilltop, Central North Side and Spring Garden; the Hill and Uptown; Hazelwood and Homewood. The disease is even worse in Beltzhoover above the South Side, the tiny North Side enclave of California-Kirkbride ("You can see it's almost every other lot," Ervin remarks), and most dramatically in Garfield, Lincoln-Lemington and neighboring Larimer in the East End.

"You have almost entire neighborhoods underwater," Ervin observes.

Squirrel Hill and Shadyside have their share of red-shaded properties, of course. But they're the sorts of scattered patches easily covered with pimple cream.

Some of the sickest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh would benefit more from chemo. 

Ervin's map represents all the tax liens (along with liens for unpaid city water and sewer bills) sold by the city to Capital Assets Research Corporation in 1996: 427,000 liens in all. (Since then, more liens have been created.) The city took a lump sum for its debt -- less than the total amount owed -- and gave Capital Assets the headache of trying to collect it all. Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation Vice President Aggie Brose, one of the local CDC leaders most successful in getting funding for her housing rehab projects, says this extra layer of bureaucracy between the community and its houses "created one long nightmare to assemble land" for developments.

Selling those liens to Capital Assets only made Pittsburgh's red splotches grow redder; on May 28, lawyers settled a lawsuit begun five years ago alleging that Capital Assets charged an improper amount of interest. Sewickley attorney Bernard S. Rubb represented plaintiffs in this class-action suit: the owners of 51,387 city properties who in many cases were charged 18 percent interest on their debt, compounded monthly. By the time five years had passed on some of these unpaid bills, the debtors were liable for 40 percent interest. On average, these delinquent taxpayers now owed one-and-a-half times their original debt. 

As a result of the settlement, to be finalized June 27, about 20,000 property owners will get refunds on debts already paid to Capital Assets; another 22,000 will have their interest rates lowered substantially. Capital Assets admitted no guilt in settling the case.

For years the city has allowed community development corporations to request that blighted, tax delinquent properties be added to the treasurer's sale list -- if they have a financially viable development plan approved by the city, says Mary Lou Johnston, the city's assistant director of finance. 

But the city is getting serious again about raising money through treasurer's sales, she explains -- though not necessarily by going through with the sale.

Four times a year, the city puts 400-500 tax delinquent properties up for sale, hoping to prompt payment from their owners. Johnston says the city looks for houses whose owners owe a lot of money, or a little money left unpaid over a long period of time, plus owners who have reneged on previous re-payment plans. It would make sense for the city to use the threat of treasurer's sale on the better tax-delinquent properties in town -- homes the owner presumably doesn't want to lose -- since city officials hope the threat of sale brings in past-due tax dollars.

"We have not foreclosed and taken property in years -- years!" notes Judy Dyda, the mayor's neighborhood policy coordinator. "The message now is -- we will. We're going to go after people."

For CDCs to add properties to the list that they hope to purchase and either tear down or rehab, "they have to have a plan" approved by the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, Johnston emphasizes. Although all properties put up for treasurer's sale are tax delinquent, CDCs naturally pick houses that are egregious examples of blight as well. These tend to be houses in the worst condition, in the poorest neighborhoods, with the most debt, so they also have the least chance of getting the city any money. The owners, if they can even be found, aren't likely to race in with checks, hoping to keep their debt-ridden wrecks as family heirlooms. And all that debt makes the houses risky development prospects as well; no developer can recoup his costs from such a rehab project. So these properties go nowhere -- which pleases the CDC. The city ends up forgiving the liens, and the community group is allowed to buy each house for $1,000. 

If the community's plans work out, these houses will eventually be taxable again. But in the meantime the city hasn't gotten back all it was owed. 

As Bloomfield-Garfield's Aggie Brose puts it, "I just see us as an arm of the city, rebuilding the city." Grant Ervin credits Mayor Tom Murphy for smoothing and shortening the treasurer's sale process, but regaining control of a tax-delinquent house is still lengthy and complicated. The 9- to 18-month legal process forces the city to create a "quiet title" (getting all the lien holders to give up their claims) and to offer the original owner 90 days to take back the property even after the new owner has purchased it, simply by paying the back taxes owed. It's a process that housing activists have spent nearly the past decade trying to improve by lobbying for new laws in Harrisburg, with mixed results.

And CDCs worry that new city rules, along with the push for more funds from the treasurer's sale this year, have left them with fewer opportunities to get the houses they wish to purchase.

Thanks to the city's revamped management and the limited pool of funds for housing development, says Dyda, city officials want Pittsburgh's CDCs to get more realistic about the projects they plan and the amount of money they need from the city and the URA. The city may want certain projects to seek non-traditional funding sources, such as foundations. 

The URA spends about $30 million annually on housing, including offering deferred mortgages that drastically reduce monthly payments for certain homebuyers. A rehab, even of an architecturally insignificant house in Garfield, can cost $90,000 to accomplish; new construction of a suburban-style house in the city can cost $110,000 or more. The URA's deferred mortgages (due in 99 years -- essentially never -- if the holder remains in the house) help keep poor neighborhoods from being gentrified by making houses affordable for the middle class.

"The longer these properties go, the more debt they will accumulate," Ervin concludes. "It's fictitious debt, in a sense. Chances are it's money [the city] is not going to be able to collect." 

So why do city officials still see tax-delinquent properties as moneymakers instead of chances to attract new city dwellers'

Ervin throws his hands in the air.

"There's enough need but there's no development dollars here," says Judith Ginyard of Lincoln-Lemington. "Our local government officials have to say they're going to do something here." 

Abandoned properties are so costly to work with that Ginyard's group has had to work around them; the city found it preferable to level trees rather than houses when it came to funding new development in this East End neighborhood.

The Lincoln Larimer Community Development Corporation built new housing on woodsy, virgin land -- five fresh facades on Campania Street, constructed mostly with Urban Redevelopment Authority money from its Pittsburgh Housing Development Corporation. 

"Ooh, somebody better cut that grass," Ginyard says with a mixture of annoyance and pride as she parks next to one of the units.

As if on cue, state Rep. Joe Preston pulls up next to Ginyard's car, a potential neighborhood developer in tow.

"I'm showing people your work," Preston calls happily through the car windows.

"What Pittsburgh Housing said to the CDC," she reports, "is 'You don't have the experience to do a major housing project so we'll do this pilot project.'" The CDC had to make certain these five new houses were all pre-sold, she adds, although one is empty today. It took three years for the project to gain city approval; they were completed in May 2002.

"Now it's income-producing," she says. "It's home-owned. It has stabilized this [street]. But it's not even a fraction of what we need in this community." 

She points out other vacant homes on other nearby streets, like the flat faade of 6542 Rowan St., with its front steps missing and plywood askew over the front door; the home owners couldn't even get that right. County property records show no taxes have been paid here since at least 2000. At 621 Thompson St., the dark stone house seems majestic amid all that dirty brick, even with boards on every entrance. A nearby neighbor recalls taking the owner's grandson around the place about five years ago. "The mantelpiece is gone," he says. "It had stained-glass windows. They took the wooden flooring out of it. It's been boarded up a long time."

"The city has to find a way to stop this process and start over again," Ginyard says. "The liens that are on some of these properties far exceed any sources of equity that is in them. You have already destroyed the community. They're never going to recoup. It's never going to flip itself around." Just enough will be done to let the neighborhood get by, she concludes -- "until the process is changed."

One person hoping to change the process is Kendall Pelling of East Liberty Development.

Pelling pushes open the front door of 732 North Euclid with obvious regret. He doesn't seem disturbed by the shin-deep trash on every inch of the floors or by the impassable drifts of junk and overturned furniture in some of its rooms. He's been here before. That he can enter the house at all seems most unpleasant to him. It means others can enter too -- and probably have.

"Whenever I come out here I close the door," he says. "One time we were out looking at the place and somebody threw a brick [in] through the window."

What an intruder could upset inside this three-floor garbage can is anybody's guess. The place could not look worse if it were actively on fire.

It's inconceivable that squatters hauled all this debris into here, even piecemeal. The endless cat-food boxes, romance novels, food wrappers and bills tell the story of a house slowly going mad from the inside out. 

Dirty towels and washcloths hang stiffly on a bathroom rod; a woman's thin bathrobe waits on a hanger nearby -- completely unreachable behind thigh-high detritus. The kitchen wall is decorated with calendars from 1986 to 1998. The sink and drying rack are crammed full of dishes that probably were not appetizing even when they were new.

The ceiling has fallen in to lathing at several levels, and paint peels in sheets from the walls like a scene from Barton Fink. Light fixtures, stair rails, even a few stairs themselves are missing. A second-floor window is not broken -- it's simply gone, frame and all.

"Probably stained glass," Pelling guesses. 

Just beneath this hole in the wall sits the only shiny thing in the house: a Sprite can. Beside it are two splashes of frothy liquid.

Someone was here, and recently.

Pelling glances around at the piles of filth.

"All in all it's not too bad actually," he says.


"Structurally it's OK. Hopefully this summer we're going to be boarding the house."

Later, at East Liberty Development's small conference table, Pelling explains ELD's strategy for rehabbing the neighborhood and re-creating its housing market.

Central to the plan is an attempt to buy and mothball 30 homes before they can fall into the same state as 732 North Euclid. ELD plans to clean these houses, board and lock them, re-roof them if necessary, maintain the yards (so the houses are not blight-builders) and hold them for buyers or for a package development deal created by ELD. 

In the meantime, the group will try to acquire and rehab properties around the mothballed houses -- those on the verge of going bad. It's the only way to guarantee each cocooned house will ever emerge.

ELD staffers learned that lesson in 2000, when they built 10 new for-sale houses on the most blighted block of East Liberty, the 700 block of Mellon Street, replacing 21 battered structures.

"And none of them would sell," Pelling says, "because the other side of the street was some dilapidated properties -- some substandard rental properties." But just by buying those -- even before the group got a chance to work on them -- ELD was able to sell its freshly constructed dwellings. Now six rehabbed townhouses greet the 10 new homes on Mellon when their owners step out each morning. 

ELD even owns a small apartment building next to another Mellon Street property it's trying to rehab, a beautiful Victorian with a conical roofed tower. "You've got to buy the slumlord properties sometimes to make the one you want to renovate attractive to sell," Pelling shrugs.

To support the mass mothballing -- a unique approach among local CDCs -- ELD received $250,000 from the nonprofit Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development, the URA and a national agency. "Normally a landlord buys this type of property" because real-estate salespeople would have a hard time selling it to someone who wants a single-family home. Pelling says "The mothballing idea "puts us into position to take control of the abandoned property issues." 

ELD also hopes to maintain several apartments for younger couples wanting to test-drive the neighborhood without buying a house at first. It will also rehab some houses just enough to "flip" them to a private buyer who can finish the renovation.

First, of course, the community development corporation has to gain control of all the houses it wants to mothball. It's been trying to get 732 North Euclid, for one, on the city's treasurer's sale.

"It always seems like a struggle to get the CDC properties onto the list," Pelling says. It is a complaint echoed by leaders of other CDCs, particularly since last December's sale. Pelling flips through December's compendium of 494 listed sale properties. The city collected slightly over $1 million of the total of $3 million owed on them all. More than 150 of these properties attracted no bids for purchase; neither did their owners step forward to pay the back taxes. Houses placed for sale at the request of CDCs who hoped to buy and recycle them, as opposed to those the city placed on the list to gain unpaid taxes, were a tiny minority.

Says Pelling: "If we're trying to use this treasurer's sale to either maximize revenue or maximize development," neither is working at this moment.

Aggie Brose would actually like all the problem houses in Garfield to be tax delinquent. The treasurer's sale is her friend. When the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation goes after properties to redevelop, it's the ones with the paid-up taxes that present a problem -- and an extra expense. The BGC has to negotiate with the seller to purchase those. But when unwanted, delinquent properties go through a treasurer's sale, the city sells them cheaply.

"And you're not hurting anybody," Brose says -- since the owner has apparently already written it off.

In her office she holds up her own map of tax-delinquencies. "This is my Garfield," she says. "It is loaded down with [tax] debt, water bills, sewer bills," all shaded in yellow. Neighboring Friendship and Bloomfield are hardly yellow at all. "You know what it looks like'" she asks. "It looks like somebody didn't finish coding the map." But Bloomfield and Friendship are really that stable -- and Garfield is exactly that overburdened.

The BGC has redevelopment plans for 50 homes throughout the neighborhood. Mostly those plans entail demolition and new construction -- and not the same old rowhouses either. "We're not bringing the density back," she says; instead, they're putting in more suburban-style houses, with more lawns, even orienting them to the side streets to make new block configurations.

Brose would like all the blight torn down, and she's pleased with Mayor Murphy's approximately $1 million fund to help with that process. Increased demolition was one of Murphy's promises at his most recent inaugural, and indeed demolitions and the funding for them have increased. But only a fraction of abandoned properties are condemned currently -- 850 -- and another fraction are torn down each year -- 614 in 2002. Both figures include everything from garages to commercial structures.

There are no teeth in citing the owner for building code violations, Brose says. 

Pittsburgh already has several anti-blight laws that have Philadelphia, which is in similar straits, beat: a property reserve, where parcels and houses are held by the city for up to five years so a critical mass can accrue for development; a sideyard program, allowing owner-occupants (but regrettably not absentee landlords, say CDC members) to buy vacant lots cheaply and quickly to turn them into sideyards; and the Private Right of Action law, a kind of citizen's arrest law covering property owners that lets individuals request lax homeowners be taken to court, much as the city's Bureau of Building Inspections can.

But Brose and her fellow housing advocates say a number of highly anticipated state laws, some in and out of the Legislature for nearly a decade, could help them tremendously. Proposed changes include:

*Make abandonment a crime, and attach owners' other assets. Owners who walk away from a property, says Brose, "should be in jail for creating blight. There's no recourse for us to get them. All the debt stays here. They could be living in Fox Chapel in a nice house, having a nice time, and I can't touch them." But if their boat or cabin were subject to seizure due to unpaid property taxes, they might take notice of their next city bill.

*Institute better credit reporting. "Everyone who buys property in the city should have to submit a Social Security number," says Brose, "so that the money they owe can be put on their credit report -- because some people really know how to play the system."

*Encourage rehabs -- and ease the rules. CDC leaders say the state should require the new owner of an abandoned property to rehab it within a certain amount of time after taking possession. To help rehabs along, the state could create a different code for rehabs, so that restoration of one electrical outlet doesn't force the owner to rewire the entire old home, for instance.

Brose cruises in her Garfield, naming all the homeowners past and present, good and bad. At the worst of the abandoned houses, she stops and echoes housing advocates everywhere in the city:

"It makes me crazy that they can walk away and leave all this."

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