Municipal Cooperation: Blight Recovery in the Mon Valley

Jan 28, 2014

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The Mon Valleycomprises about one quarter of Allegheny County in both size and population. While the Mon Valley was once a powerful economic engine in the region, in recent decades it has suffered from higher levels of vacancy, blight, and population loss than other parts of the county. Municipalities in the Mon Valley have vacancy rates ranging from 5 to 25%, and blight rates of comparable magnitude. In addition to widespread blight, the Mon Valley is challenged by deeply fragmented governments, limited resources, and cumbersome processes. Despite having a population of just 280,000, the Mon Valley has 41 municipalities – some of which are too small to execute and finance effective code enforcement or blight mitigation.

The Steel Valley, Turtle Creek Valley, and Twin Rivers Councils of Governments (COGs),which represent the 41 municipalities of the Mon Valley approached the Heinz College with a project to investigate new strategies to address this problem.

The primary objective of the project was to assess whether a multi-municipal adaptation of a “blighted property review committee” (BPRC), to incentivize better property maintenance, be feasibly implementable, and help municipalities jointly address blight more effectively than they currently can individually.

Advised by Claire Shubik-Richards, a team of Heinz students took that objective on, and also identified and assessed additional possible tools and approaches to fight blight in the Mon.  Their work included a literature review, case study analysis, mapping of current processes that address blight conditions in the valley, and a comparison of approaches and recommendations.

With the current code enforcement process as practiced across the valley, they found that the estimated average code enforcement expenditure is approximately $40,000 annually across municipalities, and code enforcement appropriations are decreasing as a percentage of total municipal spending. A vast majority of municipalities also had zero or one full-time code enforcement officer(s), and zero or one part-time officer(s). In terms of current processes, the main problems included complaint-driven systems missing violators and neglecting long-blighted properties, inconsistent practices across departments, and poor record-keeping, making day-to-day work inefficient and redevelopment authority assistance more difficult to pursue.

The team then turned to alternative strategies being deployed elsewhere in Pennsylvania and Ohio, including a multi-municipal version of “blighted property review committees” as outlined under the Commonwealth’s Urban Redevelopment Law, and as implemented recently Reading, PA. They also identified and assessed other tools such as the use of conservatorship, more aggressive code enforcement strategies such as mandatory block level inspections, quality of life tickets (like a traffic ticket for blight), database tracking of violations and follow ups, and a mandatory fee-based rental property registration system with fees collected used to fund enforcement activities.  Other strategies in included a program that provided residents incentives for acquiring property or performing property maintenance, and our personal favorite: Allentown Pennsylvania’s establishment of a “Landlord Hall of Shame” to put pressure on particularly flagrant violators of property code. 

Their report outlined many of the pros and cons with each of these strategies, and is available by request from the CED.  Special thanks to An Lewis (MSPPM ’97), the Executive Director of the Steel Valley Council of Governments, her colleagues at the Turtle Creek Valley and Twin Rivers COGs, and Rick Stafford for making this project possible.

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