Battling the blight
CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS The former Elks building on Ridge Street in Lansford
Lansford borough is battling blight, wielding an active community improvement organization, aggressive pursuit of scofflaws, a tough new state law and a proposed historic district designation as weapons.
Vacant, dilapidated and neglected buildings are a growing problem.
The vacancy rate of houses alone is soaring, according to the Pennsylvania State Data Center. In 1990, the U.S. Census listed an 8.9 percent vacancy rate. In 2000, that jumped to 15.7 percent rate. By 2010, it rose again, to 20.8 percent.
Add to that the vacant and deteriorating stores and factories, and Lansford has a problem.
Borough council president Rosemary Cannon is painfully aware of the problem.
"Walking from my home to the borough office, I walk the blocks which used to contain the prosperous business district of Lansford," she says. "Some of this area was destroyed years ago by fire. However, a good portion of the remaining store fronts are now empty, dirty and neglected, and this makes me very sad and angry. Sad that this is what has become of our business district and angry that 'we' have not done more to prevent it. However, the blighted and neglected properties of Lansford (which includes many neighborhood homes) is also prevalent in many other communities where coal once was king and no other industry replaced it. The change in economics and ethnic population has also taken its toll on many communities."
Blight can suck the life out of a community.
"The impact of blighted properties on the community is something that has immediate effect as well as long term impacts," says Ed Knittle, Senior Director of Education and Sustainability for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs. "Blight may result from the loss of income to repair and/or maintain a property as well as a lack of interest and/or concerns for a particular property.
"During the last several years, many of our communities have seen an increase in the number of blighted properties as owners defaulted on their mortgages. Historically, many people viewed blighted properties as storefronts within our boroughs' commercial areas. But today, as a result of the 'great recession' we have seen blighted properties occur within residential neighborhoods," he says.
Borough police Officer Chris Ondrus was on duty July 17 when he answered a call about glass falling from the broken windows of a vacant building at 118 W. Ridge St.
Police have been handling property maintenance issues since borough council closed the code enforcement office in May to save money.
When police went to inspect, they also saw that the large metal letters on the adjoining former Ridge Center, also vacant, were coming loose.
"We noticed that the letters D and G were actually pulled away from the front facade," Ondrus says. "We contacted the mayor, and he got hold of the fire department and they came down and took off the cobalt blue glass panels and took the I, D, G and E off 'Ridge Center' and took off some of the rotted wood. At 118, we pushed the rest of the broken glass inside the building."
Ondrus said the owner of 118 W. Ridge is hiring a contractor to board up the windows. The owner of the former Ridge Center has yet to respond to calls.
Neighbors of other vacant buildings complain of high grass that harbors snakes and rats, of mold infestations resulting from gaping holes in roofs and of rotting structures threatening collapse.
Aside from the physical dangers, the town also loses out on tax revenue when buildings are abandoned.
Lansford tax collector Daniel Wynn says that currently three houses in the borough, all on Kline Avenue, are up for final tax sale. Other vacant properties have out-of-state owners who pay the minimum amount of taxes at the last minute to avoid tax sale. Often, those properties are not maintained, he says.
In some cases, the original owner has died, and the house is passed along to a far-flung family member, or into the hands of a bank, making it difficult to track down the person responsible for upkeep and taxes.
The recent recession has compounded the problem, he says. People who have lost their jobs often cannot pay their taxes, or never learned how to budget.
Wynn says that in 1984, his first year as tax collector, he filed 120 tax liens. By last year, the number had grown to 350.
The lack of tax revenue also makes it harder for towns to tear down bad buildings.
"Many of our municipalities lack the resources to secure abandoned properties; by boarding windows and doorways as well as removing accumulated trash and rubbish from both the interior and exterior of the properties," Knittle says. "At the same time, municipal officials are unable to allocate the resources necessary to prosecute property owners who have allowed their properties to become blighted. Borough officials are very much aware of the economic hardships suffered by many during the last several years, and they themselves have experienced a reduction in tax dollars available to provide basic municipal services such as police, fire protection, and code enforcement."
Lansford Alive! is the town's advance guard for change.
Businessman Bob Silver, a member of the community improvement organization, says the borough must start by targeting the large, commercial buildings to win the war on blight.
"What needs to happen is one structure must be singled out to start correcting the problem. Once people see the community has gone after these people and gotten it straightened out, they're going to start opening their eyes, thinking, hey, maybe they're coming at me next. And maybe they'll start fixing up," he says.
Silver cited other towns that have begun ticketing errant property owners.
"If you see weeds, you walk over, write them a ticket and hand it to them," he says. "It works."
Ondrus, Lansford Alive! president, also wants to nip blight in the bud by starting small.
"We could be proactive, finding a gate broken off its hinges, a window that's broken or the screen is busted out, or a couple shingles missing. Get after the homeowner then, because it's going to be a lot cheaper to correct than if we wait five years down the road when there's water getting in and mold is everywhere," he says.
Last year, borough solicitor Michael Greek advised council to create a Property Maintenance Committee, composed of council members and Lansford Alive! members, to handle the blight on a case-by-case basis. The committee, however, has yet to meet.
A proposal to designate virtually the whole town as a historic district would also encourage new business and perhaps bring in grant money to spruce it up, Ondrus says. The proposal, compiled by the Lansford Historical Society, now rests with the state.
Laying down the law
In 2011, the state passed a Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act.
"I worked with a statewide anti-blight task force which created a new law, Act 90, to help communities just like Lansford," says state Sen. David G. Argall. "This law gives municipalities several new tools to use in their ongoing efforts to fight blight. The most effective part of the new law gives municipalities the power to go after the personal assets of a negligent property owner in order to recoup the costs of fixing or demolishing the blighted property.
"Every situation involving a blighted or dilapidated property is unique, and there is no single way to deal with the problem. With the passage of Act 90, municipalities have been given some of the toughest enforcement tools in the country. We have given communities several new options in code enforcement and they now can decide for themselves whether a situation dictates using the tools in Act 90. "
But Cannon says the issue goes deeper.
"Enforcement of ordinances and laws is only a Band-Aid on a much bigger sore. We need people to care about where they live and take care of their properties, we need owners of these vacant structures to step up, care and clean up their buildings. We, the borough, cannot afford, nor should we have to be the keeper of these properties.
"Lansford Alive! is doing its best to 'market' our downtown and make other positive changes. They need more people interested in helping," she says. "Bottom line, if you do not care about where you live, your home and town, no one else does either. The buck stops with us as individuals and as a community."