In a pair of actions on Tuesday, the majority-Democrat state House started making it a little easier for communities across the state to fight blight within their borders.
The bill would, among other things, establish a new grant program, administered by the state Department of Community & Economic Development that would help pay for the hiring of new code enforcement officers and to strengthen existing programs, the Capital-Star reported on May 26.
The House vote “brings us a step closer to addressing a major urban enemy,” Merski said in a Tuesday statement. “Vacant, distressed properties have been a persistent problem for Erie and other communities, but many lack a dedicated budget for code enforcement, so these efforts often go by the wayside. At the same time, the cost of failing to address the problem costs cities millions in lost property tax revenue and unrealized investments.”
Merski’s bill now heads to the Republican-controlled state Senate.
Thing Two: The House’s Housing & Community Development Committee voted 12-9 to approve a blight-fighting bill sponsored by Rep. Abigail Salisbury, D-Allegheny, that allows “communities to make vacant blighted or abandoned properties subject to potential acquisition by [a] land bank.”
The bill now goes to the full House for a vote.
As it’s currently written, the bill would give property owners time to make the repairs needed to reverse the designation or appeal it, the western Pennsylvania lawmaker said in a statement.
“In my five years as a borough council member, I saw firsthand how these neglected properties can become safety hazards and sources of frustration for communities,” Salisbury said in that Tuesday statement.
The Big Picture: In his first budget address to the General Assembly in March, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro tucked a number of community revitalization initiatives into his proposed $44.4 billion spending plan for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.
The Democratic governor emphasized his support for such efforts during his inaugural address, telling his audience that “we walked our main streets together and I listened to you,” during the 2022 campaign, and “I heard your stories,” according to PennLive.
Both bills appear intended to compliment that effort, as Merski made clear in a statement accompanying a House committee vote last month.
“The governor has proposed new investments in community revitalization, and those projects can be transformative for Erie and other communities,” Merski said. “But we need to lay the groundwork by eliminating the blighted, abandoned properties and deter investment.”
Dollars and Cents: Blight — in all its forms — has a real impact on the bottom line of communities across the state, according to a 2013 study by a trio of councils of government in western Pennsylvania, the Capital-Star reported last month.
If left unaddressed, blight can result in:
- Higher vacancy rates in blighted blocks, higher maintenance costs, and uncollected taxes.
- A cycle of disinvestment that discourages new private investment in areas where it takes place.
- Lower property values.
“By all accounts, vacant properties are a curse. Just ask anyone who lives next to a drug den, a boarded-up firetrap or a trash-filled lot,” the National Vacant Properties Campaign concluded in a 2005 report.
“But abandonment often seems beyond the control of local officials, and it rarely incites a sense of urgency beyond the neighbors on the block where it occurs,” the report’s authors wrote at the time. “But the evidence shows that vacant properties are an expense that local governments simply cannot afford – and that the expense grows with every year a property remains vacant or abandoned.”
In her Tuesday statement, Salisbury echoed that sentiment.
“As a [borough] council member … ability to help neighbors deal with problem properties was limited by what the law allowed,” Salisbury said. “My goal with this legislation is to add another tool to local governments’ toolboxes and help put properties back to productive use. My bill delivers a ‘use it or lose it’ message to urge property owners into action and improve communities’ ability to address blight.”
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