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On blight, Pennsylvania officials lack capacity, property owners lack clarity

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(The Center Square) – Property blight is a common problem across Pennsylvania, but municipal leaders struggle to build the capacity to deal with it.

When recalcitrant property owners ignore warnings or don’t bother to address the issue, neighbors must suffer, home values drop, and neighborhoods decline.

One problem may be that local officials don’t clearly communicate code standards – and those rules differ from place to place.

“There is growing concern, both within the commonwealth and nationwide, over the impact of blight on communities, and code enforcement is a key tool in mitigating and preventing blight,” Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-Oil City, wrote in a report on blight issued by the Local Government Commission, a bicameral and bipartisan legislative agency.

Everyone from city councilors to state legislators have proposed legal fixes for blight.

The General Assembly has considered fines proposed and registration fees for blighted and vacant property; others have suggested a statewide registry to shame neglectful owners and warn municipalities of bad developers’ history elsewhere in the commonwealth. Rather than pushing the burden onto municipalities, some legislators have proposed letting land banks take over blighted properties.

The City of Erie approved a $300 registration fee to impose on blighted property owners, with fines to follow for not doing so. But its status as a third-class city restricts what it can do to address its 400-plus unsound properties and 3,100-plus homes in poor condition.

The problems are not new; Pennsylvania has had a Statewide Blight Task Force since 2006. The commonwealth has statewide regulations covering building codes – but doesn’t have a uniform property maintenance code. Instead, towns, boroughs, and cities decide whether they want to establish a code and what form it will take.

Likewise, municipalities can appoint code officers, but state law is silent on what training or requirements they need to have.

The Local Government Commission report found the vast majority of municipalities (out of 137) have a zoning ordinance (90%) and a property maintenance ordinance (83%) – but only 49% had an ordinance for rental inspection and licensing.

Of the 119 places with a property maintenance ordinance, 57% had a full-time code enforcement officer, and two-thirds said they averaged fewer than 50 citations annually, with the vast majority of code violations getting resolved pre-citation (70%) or pre-court (20%).

One official blamed limited liability companies as a major headache that stops issues from getting fixed.

“Owners of LLCs need to be held responsible for their actions. LLCs, primarily owned by out-of-state people, own a significant portion of poorly maintained properties in the borough,” the anonymized comment noted. “It is cheaper for them to pay small fines from code violations than to maintain their properties, thereby providing a financial disincentive to comply (with) codes. There is no way to collect fines if the LLC closes other than placing a lien on properties, which will not be collected for years or decades.”

When those problems don’t get fixed, the public notices. Almost half of officials said they get complaints about code violations “often” or “very often.”

Taking those complaints and fixing them, however, is tricky. Only 28% of officials thought their municipality had the capacity to deal with blight – 31% disagreed that their municipality could sufficiently combat blight and 12% strongly disagreed.

For their part, property owners weren’t happy about the status quo either. Of 82 property owners who responded to the commission’s survey, less than a quarter thought their municipality’s code expectations and enforcement was consistent.

“Information about the property maintenance codes has and continues to be a huge issue, and they are different for each municipality,” one owner noted.

“Another owner mentioned the economic considerations of developing new affordable housing units, which have lower returns on investment,” the report said. “Though referencing building code requirements, they explained that ‘when factors such as the need for an elevator and fire suppression come into play, those costs can be prohibitive when considering whether to develop or not.’”

That concern echoes what other property developers have told state legislators: Onerous zoning restrictions can kill a project and make it illegal to build the homes and apartments that already exist in towns and cities across Pennsylvania.