So Many Houses, So Little Money: How to Manage the Abandoned Properties of North Braddock, PA?

2016-01-18T21:26:52+00:00 January 19th, 2016|

By Nafari Vanaski

Let’s say you’re in McKeesport, one of the many suburbs in western Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County. You want to get to Pittsburgh, but want to avoid the incessant construction on I-376. So when you get to Fifth Avenue, instead of proceeding to Route 30 and the parkway, you pick up the East Pittsburgh-McKeesport Boulevard to Main Street, to Center Street, Bell Avenue, through East McKeesport, East Pittsburgh. Traffic’s humming along, considering you’re driving through a residential area. Suddenly, you realize why. After you’ve passed the Jehovah’s Witness building on your right, you see a massive rock structure, and then a house with a loud paint job that is still decorated for Christmas – and it’s spring. And then you drive an entire city block and it’s clear that every house is abandoned. And another. And another.

You’ve just been down the main drag of North Braddock, population 4,835. Like many of the suburban communities in this region, it has yet to recover from the loss of local factory jobs – or the loss of two-thirds of its population. You get out and stand on Kirkpatrick between Anderson and Hutson streets and you entertain the strong possibility that you are the only living person on the block. It’s unbelievable, but it looks as though someone might have forgotten there’s a town here.

Borough officials keep a record of all the abandoned homes, hoping to reach homeowners so they can repair damage.

Borough officials keep a record of all the abandoned homes, hoping to reach homeowners so they can repair damage.

But that can’t be right. Because if you turn onto Anderson, you’ll see a large brown building and it looks official, so you go in and walk around until you find a man sitting behind the desk, talking to two other men. You identify yourself and say, “So, I was wondering … it seems as though there are a lot of abandoned houses around here?”

The guy behind the desk is Doug Marguriet, and he’s the borough manager of North Braddock. He snorts and raises his hands in a gesture that seems to say, “Duh!” He walks over to where the other men are sitting and pulls a giant white binder out of a drawer. The white sheet tucked into the binder cover plastic reads BOROUGH OF NORTH BRADDOCK ABANDONED PROPERTIES.

They’d noticed.

            * * *

Several of the homes on Bell Avenue, such as the one on the far right here, are marked so emergency personnel know it is unsafe to enter.

Several of the homes on Bell Avenue, such as the one on the far right here, are marked so emergency personnel know it is unsafe to enter.

Before North Braddock was officially North Braddock, there was steel. In 1872, Andrew Carnegie chose the area to build his first steel mill, the Edgar Thomson Works, but the borough wasn’t incorporated until 1897. By that time the steel industry was drawing in residents, and by 1930 the population was more than 16,000. But as with many Mon Valley communities, when the mills began to close, people left in search of the next job.

These days, about 350 of the houses here are abandoned and many of those are considered dangerous. The houses have to come down. No one disputes it. They are a monument to blight. They are safety hazards, havens for crime and criminals, and a deterrent to anyone who would consider moving to the borough. So why are they still standing?

For the answer, you have to follow the money. In North Braddock, there is none. The population has been dropping precipitously since it’s 1930s high, and taking along with it the tax money that could go toward the estimated $3 million officials say they need to demolish the houses.

[blocktext align=”right”] “Understand that the 350 houses we’ve identified are beyond repair. It’s not a good investment for anybody. They’re just shells of houses.”[/blocktext]Marguriet says that for a long time, they could count on money from the state for demolition. But over the years, they got less help from the state. Right now, though, he says, at the county level, a renewed effort is underway to address the problem, because it touches several other municipalities, some of which some have gotten creative.

Braddock, which borders North Braddock, has a 30 percent vacancy rate, according to a University of Pittsburgh study. In 2004, Mayor John Fetterman (now seeking a U.S. Senate seat) moved into an abandoned warehouse in Braddock to live. It needed a new roof, new wiring, new everything, but he did it. Michael Cherepko, the mayor of McKeesport (18 percent) touted the borough’s vacant housing program by building a house on one of the lots. Last summer, Wilkinsburg (20.8 percent) kicked off a vacant housing tour to lure buyers to homes in disrepair.

Marguriet knows all of this. When asked if the borough would consider trying these approaches, he responds: “Understand that the 350 houses we’ve identified are beyond repair. It’s not a good investment for anybody. They’re just shells of houses.”

* * *

nb22It isn’t as though the entire borough looks this way. Some stretches, especially along the Grand View Golf Course, are quite nice. That area is called Upper St. North Braddock with a wink, a reference to the tonier Upper St. Clair. From the course, the surrounding rivers, bridges, and buildings unfold before you. It’s a spectacular view, and if you were going to build something in this borough, it would be here. In fact, someone had that idea.

In the early 2000s, the owners of six vacant acres near the course suggested building 50 or 60 new townhomes there as part of a $7.5 million development. It was a huge undertaking that would have also involved properties owned by Allegheny County, the borough, the Woodland Hills school district, and some of the properties that were tax delinquent. The new home buyers would be lured in with the promise of a 10-year, 50-percent property tax abatement, although even with that, the borough stood to bring in more than $20,000 a year in taxes. It took at least two years to get every duck in a row, but finally, they were aligned just so. All that was left was the approval of borough council, and in 2004, they did agree to approve the project.

Then they didn’t.

Upon further consideration, some of the council members decided it wasn’t fair that some people would be allowed to pay less in taxes, so they voted down that part of the project, which effectively killed it. In an old Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story about the decision, one council member at the time said, “Let them pay their taxes. We had to pay our taxes. My dad would be turning over in his grave. He never got free taxes.”

No one knows how that project would have changed North Braddock, but it is an account that comes up in every conversation about the abandoned homes. Thirty-year resident Steve Liptak, Jr., references it when asked about how this situation might have been avoided, saying,  “The borough officials based their decisions on the past and not the future.”

[blocktext align=”left”]“The borough officials based their decisions on the past and not the future.”[/blocktext]It’s not likely that more developers will come knocking. But last year, drillers did, offering the borough money if natural gas drilling were allowed at the golf course. Officials were ready to consider the idea, but many residents turned up at the next council meeting to reject it, for reasons ranging from opposition to fracking to the possibility they might lose the view from their house as the work proceeded. Some houses still display anti-fracking signs, in and out of Upper St. North Braddock.

Still, not everyone is opposed. Liptak wouldn’t support fracking if he was convinced it had been proved detrimental to the environment. But, he says, “If you have a reasonable idea on how much revenue you can generate and it can remove a majority of the vacant homes, then you have to ask yourself, ‘What other option will ever provide us this opportunity again?’”

* * *

One way to fix the problem is to get the owners to fix it. That’s what Dave Andrews, borough code enforcement officer, does. Or, it’s what he tries to do.

It starts when he gets a phone call from a neighbor – the grass is too high, the structure looks iffy, there’s a weird smell.

Dave Andrews, the borough code enforcement officer, tests each step in an abandoned home before climbing them – if they're weak, he could fall through.

Dave Andrews, the borough code enforcement officer, tests each step in an abandoned home before climbing them – if they’re weak, he could fall through.

When the call involves a structure that poses a problem for those around it, Andrews usually has to go in. The abandoned home that we go to is on Cliff Street. It’s one of the worse streets in the borough.

“Yeah, Cliff Street looks like Beirut,” Andrews says. He’s not kidding. On this stretch, if the house isn’t clearly abandoned, it looks as though it should be. The borough also has a high number of renters, and the upkeep of some homes is clearly minimal.

The person who last lived in the house on Cliff Street was a hoarder. The house is packed from floor to ceiling with junk, on all three of its floors. Andrews, a fairly big man, navigates the staircase between floors carefully.

“You could fall through,” he warns. This is why he always carries a radio. The radio is the only reason I decide to follow him up.

Others have probably been in the house as well in the years  it’s sat empty. It doesn’t have any copper pipes any more – that’s the first thing people steal.

And there’s another thing. As soon as you walk in, the smell of urine is strong enough to wither the cilia in your nose. It’s a smell that doesn’t fade, Andrews says. It gets into the wood of the structure and stays there. It’s not the worst smell he’s ever encountered, though.

Once, he was summoned to a house that was home to another deceased hoarder. “They called me up …  A lady had died in there …”

Even if the homeowner is among the living, it’s half of Andrews’ battle to track him or her down.

This abandoned home on Cliff Street was previously owned by a hoarder.

This abandoned home on Cliff Street was previously owned by a hoarder.

He points out a run-down structure, and as with every one of these houses, he has a story. “I take this guy to court, says, ‘Look, you need to tear this down.’ ‘I don’t own it anymore. I sold it.’ ‘O.K., who did you sell it to?’ Gives me a name. Guy’s address comes back to this house. He’s not living there. Nobody could live in there.”

If Andrews can bypass the runaround to find the owner and issue a citation, he or she is allowed 30 days to fix the problem. If the person doesn’t comply, then the complaint moves to downtown Pittsburgh, and it takes about a month or two to get a date at the appeals court. Usually, Andrews says, the magistrate often gives the person another 30 days to fix the problem. If they don’t, he’s back in court again, and the owner is ordered to pay the fine, but it’s pretty steep at this point – it could be as much as $1,000 – so the magistrate usually reduces the fine. In the case of those 350 or so houses, the fines go unpaid and the work goes undone and “you’re back at square one,” Andrews says.

He’s in court about twice a month, he estimates, trying to get people to fix their homes or pay the fine. Usually, those trips are fruitless, and he hears about it from frustrated residents.

“They think I’m not doing my job because nothing gets done.”

* * *

Under the circumstances, Steve Liptak Jr. might be considered fortunate. Only two of the 20 or so homes on his block are vacant. There was a time when most of the people who lived on the block were the homeowners, but seven of the properties are now occupied by renters. He lives in the borough’s first ward, where it used to be fairly quiet. Now, he says, you can hear gunshots more often.

“The vacant housing prohibits people from wanting to buy property and the criminal element thrives in the depressed area,” he says. “The vacant housing has caused an issue with juvenile criminal mischief, arsonist access to buildings, thieves taking copper pipes, and criminals having a place to hide.”

nb21Liptak thinks the government could have done more to prevent this situation, even as early as when the steel industry moved out. But now that the problem of abandonment is in its advanced stages, he feels that most efforts to turn it around must come from the community.

Liptak started an online Facebook group – North Braddock Network – to share tips with residents about suspicious activities, events, and how they can help. Besides that, he said residents could volunteer to board up the dangerous vacant housing. “Neighbors could also take the time to landscape the vacant properties to maintain the appearance of the community,” he says. He also advocates lobbying the state and federal governments for funding.

Marguriet agrees. “It should be national policy … to do something about all these old industrial towns by eliminating blight,” he says, citing the efforts to clean up Europe after World War II.

“Then you give the markets a chance to revitalize. But if you don’t get rid of the blight, nothing’s going to happen. You can’t build new houses in the midst of blight.”

___
Nafari Vanaski, a Brooklyn native, pursued a journalism career in high school, despite all the warnings. She spent 12 years in various roles at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, including five years as a metro columnist. She is now an editor in Lakeland, Fl.

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7 Comments

  1. Sick of it March 8, 2016 at 8:46 am - Reply

    This is a wonderful article about blight; a blighted community and blighted minds that are running the town. Steve Liptak,Jr. is a Nehemiah that sits on the wall who is trying to do a good work but is met with opposition and empty promises by the mayor and the council. He is a warrior who needs others to help in the fight. I have been a resident in North Braddock on and off for 51 years. The blighted minds have always held this area hostage. We need to get others interested in this property, we need to find investors and others who see the value and the beauty of these hills. The council needs to stop practicing insanity: doing the same old thing and expecting a different result. The residents feel the hopelessness but I smell a rat! Why is the mayor and the council happy with the status quo (I cannot say this is true of all of the council members. There are some that are really trying to do good things but they are mostly female and minority)? Why do they feel like non-production and inefficiency practices over a long period of time is acceptable? Why aren’t they tirelessly trying to attract money and others to this community and meeting with other communities that have done this great success (just look at Braddock)? When a seemingly deficient status quo is kept, I believe someone is benefiting. I wonder who it is? Thank you for the exposure.

  2. Diva December 29, 2016 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    I live in the community and it is TERRIBLE. I counted 8 abandoned houses on Hawkins Avenue, from the intersection at 4TH ST to the Bridge that takes you into Swissvale. Why don’t they find out who owns these ruins and garnish their wages? Or just tear them down and bill the property owners? This could be a decent community if they did something about these horrific homes. I can’t deal with all of the blight that surrounds me, so I’m moving someplace where they are effective with maintaining the community. The officials can say that their hands are tied, but I don’t see this issue in USC, Bethel Park, Monroeville…seems to be suspicious to me.

    • Ralph September 12, 2017 at 10:42 am - Reply

      Pay a contractor your own money to tear them down, bill the owner, see how it works out for you…

  3. al September 11, 2017 at 8:12 pm - Reply

    Grew up in NB but, have long since moved. Current and former residents still have aa certain pride in the old neighborhood a kinship. We would all love to see a turnaround but, I doubt I’ll see it. Most of us are excited about the few places opening in Braddock. The problems there are both cultural and financial, the area has become a magnet for the most economical deprived people. To develop it would requiring relocating those in the depressed properties but, to where?

  4. Scott September 11, 2017 at 9:32 pm - Reply

    If I knew someone would buy the house before fixing it up. I would gladly invest in property down there and renovate, but it’s such a risky investment w/no guaranteed return.

  5. Timothy September 12, 2017 at 6:09 am - Reply

    If owner residents speak out we get in trouble..the borough and the banks and whoever owns these properties rather have renters that don’t take care of where they are renting.. my family has been living in this town since the beginning basically and they have tried to improve the areas around them but the borough makes it to hard to own the blighted properties
    .rewrite new deeds to a property if the owners have not been around for 7 years just like record keeping out with old records ..properties and sell them to people less likely to turn them into rental properties that’s the real problem to many renters ..u can’t even drive on some of the roads in 3rd ward unless u have a truck..when I was a kid here there wasn’t even weeds growing on the sidewalks or streets like now and we had a smaller borough work force but they worked!! not like the ones now .they do nothing 🙁 and volunteer to clean up someone else garbage is what we have to do everyday..the borough has money they buy new vehicles etc. We haven’t even had a crossing guard for the school kids on wolf Ave and Briton road …they said they don’t have funding for it but then they said they did but I still haven’t seen a crossing guard.. kids under 10 have to cross the street and my family has tried to improve this town but that’s another long story 🙂

  6. DBeckRealtor November 16, 2017 at 6:05 am - Reply

    My sister lives here. I grew up in the neighboring town of East Pittsburgh. When I return to visit my two sisters and I am reminded of a town that used to have pride it it’s appearance. But, now as the article describes so well, has become another casualty or remember when…

    River walk is charming and beautiful, but I am told the drug dealers take over at night. So what is a lovely escape from a decaying neighborhood cannot be safeguarded from this and similar elements? Bring in the national guard if necessary. Keep River Walk a place where people who chose to stay can enjoy and feel pride about meeting family and friends here.

    AND, until those idiots who make decisions are voted out of office so progress, if it is even possible, can occur.

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