A number of municipal, county and state officials from Schuylkill, Carbon, Berks, Lehigh and Monroe counties took part in a blight seminar hosted by Sen. Dave Argall and state Rep. Doyle Heffley last night at the Morgan Campus of the Lehigh Carbon Community College in Tamaqua.
During the seminar, visitors learned about a new blight law that goes after absentee landlords and makes multiple code violations a criminal offense. They also heard from guest speakers Ed Pawlowski, Allentown's mayor, and Micah Gursky, Tamaqua Borough Council president and director of the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership, talk about how they've successfully dealt with blight, as well as understanding, dealing with and staying ahead of it.
Argall stressed the successes of Senate Bill 900, known as the Neighborhood Blight Revitalization and Reclamation Act.
"Municipalities throughout Pennsylvania have been impacted by abandoned or dilapidated properties," said Argall. "These eyesores leave a black mark on our communities that many times are difficult to eliminate."
Argall, who was a prime sponsor of the bill, pointed out that the new law clarifies the identity of property owners and holds them responsible for the municipal costs to secure, remediate or demolish blighted structures. Municipalities may institute an action to prevent, restrain, correct or abate property code violations.
Pawlowski, who has been Allentown's mayor since 2006, spent more than an hour talking about how his city, the third largest in Pennsylvania, is progressively dealing with problems of blight. He pointed out that approximately 70,000 people in the city are condensed in less than 20 square blocks; 47 percent of which are renter occupied and 45 percent of residential properties were built before 1939.
Pawlowski also stressed that blight causes an increase in crime, deterioration of the city infrastructure, less parking and inhibits economic development. Some of the tools used by Pawlowski to fight blight in Allentown consist of presale inspections, rental licensing, SWEEP ticketing program, escalated code penalty process, systematically inspecting rental properties and routinely holding a blighted property review.
Pawlowski said presale inspections help local officials determine who is renting properties, while rental licensing gives officials more control over absentee landlords. Currently, Allentown requires presale inspections every five years at $75 a unit. If they are unhabitable, they are tagged.
The SWEEP ticketing program relies on a simple ticketing/fine process that local officials, housing inspectors, police officers or certified firefighters can issue to landlords for various health and safety violations. In 2011, more than 5,800, tickets, most being $25, were issued for over 9,000 violations of city ordinances, most involving noise, animal, health and safety violations. Pawlowski said the success of the SWEEP program isn't attributed to handing out tickets, but rather for landlords to comply.
Another tool brought up during the seminar was the Disruptive Tenant Code, which requires tenants to move if police are called to their property three or more times.
The Landlord Hall of Fame was another weapon Allentown created and used to battle blight. The program, which publicly announces bad landlords by posting signs and holding press conferences, shames the landlords into doing repairs.
In addition to adding inspectors, Allentown formed a task force to review the city's zoning ordinance, which enacted changes to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood. They also improved Quality of Life Ordinances. All of which are posted for all to see on their website www.allentownpa.gov.
Another tool brought up by Pawlowski, was stricter fines and rental license policies.
Pawlowski said that since the city has enacted all these new codes and laws, crime has dropped almost 30 percent, and that about 100 of the 48,000 housing units are unoccupied.
Gursky spent time talking about Tamaqua's battle over blight and its ways of staying ahead of it. Gursky also pointed out popular myths regarding fighting blight, such as "The problem is enforcement," "There is nothing we could do about it," "We (municipalities) are not in the real estate business," and "We cannot do anything without funding."
Gursky said that most people are community-minded and care, stressing the idea of getting citizens more involved in fighting blight.
"Dealing with blight isn't fun," added Gursky, adding that fighting blight requires a strong dedication from local municipalities and requires a dedicated staff to keep track of property lists, sheriff and judicial sales and update ordinances. Gursky, who talked about acquisition and rehabilitation, also brought up the importance of working with outside agencies, such as LISC, USDA and PHFA.
Pawlowski also pointed out the option of communities to work together among themselves and via county support to fight blight.
George Halcovage Jr, Schuylkill County commissioner, said that county officials will work with grant programs to be more efficient as well as pursuing the options of public and private partnerships.
"Success will come from working together," Halcovage said.
"Its not just a quality-of-life issue," Argall said. "Blight also affects economic, job and community development."
Also present during the seminar were state Representatives Mike Tobash, Neal Goodman and Jerry Knowles.
Officials also provided a number of online tools that offer more tools to help fight blight.
Pawlowski ended with a quote from Lyndon B. Johnson, "Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose."