With new tools to fight blight, communities look to arm themselves to reclaim neighborhoods

    With the heavily boarded up community of Homestead as a backdrop, the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania released a toolkit to fight blight today.

    The event, attended by about 150 people and requiring a venue change to accommodate them all, was an indicator of just how much interest there is in the fight against blight. The new toolkit provides strategies to both prevent and eliminate existing blight. They include adopting clear rules and building maintenance standards, and the use of fines and criminal charges to encourage compliance.

    Maura Kennedy is Pittsburgh’s new Chief of Building Inspection. She spearheaded Philadelphia’s effort to systematically go after properties in specific neighborhoods, another method to decrease blight. She said it was an inexpensive initiative with big returns.

    “First, we focus on finding the owners, it’s not really clear always who owns that property,” she said. “Secondly we developed some new code enforcement measures to develop the higher code enforcement standard and property maintenance standard to improve the overall neighborhoods. And then third we got some dedicated legal resources both from out attorneys in-house and from the court system as a whole.”

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    The Reinvestment Fund, a community investment group, studied Kennedy’s efforts and shows that targeted enforcement in Philadelphia led to about $74-million of unlocked property value in the city. “When you get in, you’re targeted, you’re focused, and you really sort of take care of the problem, you can have a really strong demonstrable effect,” said Ira Goldstein, with The Reinvestment Fund.

    Kennedy said she wants to eventually carry out a similar program in Pittsburgh.

    Pennsylvania’s Act 90, passed in 2010, expanded communities’ power to fight blight. It includes the ability to levy large fines when a building is missing doors or windows, and allows the placement of a lien on the personal assets of an absentee property owner who is in violation of building codes.

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