1104 Rebecca Avenue is a 1,575-square-foot home that sits atop a small hill on a quiet residential street in Wilkinsburg. It has a shingle roof, clapboard siding and a single front-facing window that stares out across the street toward a row of apartments.

Once a family home, it now sits vacant. The white paint that covers the house, discolored by soot and grime, peels off the front face of the home. The awning that once covered the porch has completely collapsed.

Around 58,000 housing units are vacant in Allegheny County, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s almost 10% of the county’s total housing units.

Over the past two decades, both Harrisburg and Allegheny County have enabled programs to combat vacancy in municipalities like Wilkinsburg. However, the three most widely known and used pieces — sheriff’s sale, conservatorship and the county’s Vacant Property Recovery Program — have all failed to tackle the problem, leaving properties like 1104 Rebecca still vacant.

Borough leaders are nonetheless hopeful. They believe that calls for a new system of delinquent tax collection and an infusion of money into the borough’s fledgling land bank could bring change to the borough’s vacancy issue.

Wilkinsburg's vacant properties number over 1,000

In Wilkinsburg, like with other municipalities across the county, property vacancy most often accompanies poverty. When family members die off and their descendents don’t have the means or desire to preserve a home, properties become vacant.

“It's not really an active choice to leave these properties. They've just been left to neglect and there wasn't someone or some system in place to start turning them over at the time,” said Wilkinsburg Councilman Mike McMullin.

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1104 Rebecca, a vacant home located in a residential area of Wilkinsburg, was the former residence of a local family. (Photo by Alexis Wary/Rtvsrece)

These issues are compounded by the population loss the borough has experienced for the past 75 years. Home to a population of around 31,000 in 1950, the borough now has an estimated 14,000 inhabitants. The borough’s median household income is $39,793, just under two-thirds of the county’s annual median income of $66,659.

“Pittsburgh reinvented itself. Wilkinsburg never did,” said Jerry Gaudi, executive director of real estate redevelopment nonprofit Revitalize Wilkinsburg.

As of January, county property records showed around 1,066 vacant properties in Wilkinsburg — nearly 15% of the borough’s property stock.

Property owners “didn’t know how to fight it, so they just abandoned it,” Gaudi said.

That is the story of 1104 Rebecca. In 1975, the property was sold to Gene and Dyann Stophel. Gene died on April 11, 1994. When Dyann died three months later, the property fell vacant. Members of the Stophel family could not be reached.

The property has accumulated nearly $1,500 in tax liens from the borough and school district over the years.

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Sheriff's sale process leaves behind vacant property

The most widely used mechanism for dealing with vacant property in Wilkinsburg is the sheriff’s sale. Every month, the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office holds an auction to sell off tax- and mortgage-delinquent properties.

After a property like 1104 Rebecca becomes tax-delinquent, a municipality’s collection agency — in Wilkinsburg’s case, Penn Hills-based MBM Collections — can attempt to collect and bring the delinquent property to sheriff’s sale.

“Regardless of how the decision is made, at some point a taxing body will say ‘take it to sale,’” said An Lewis, executive director of both the Steel Rivers Council of Governments and the Tri-COG Land Bank.

Not all properties brought to sheriff’s sale are vacant, but all vacant properties brought to sheriff’s sale are tax or mortgage delinquent.

But 1104 Rebecca hasn’t been brought to a sheriff’s sale.

Lewis said there are two primary reasons why tax-delinquent properties may not go up for auction: price and interest of buyers.

At the sale, bids begin with a predetermined price, consisting of the amount of back taxes on the property plus the legal and service costs of the plaintiff’s attorney.

Tri-COG Land Bank pays, on average, more than $5,000 in legal fees alone when acquiring property through a process that often takes months, sometimes years, said Lewis.

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Vacant properties, Lewis said, are not likely to attract buyers because they may be worth less than the taxes and fees owed on the property.

“The biggest problem with the sheriff’s sale is that it’s predicated on the idea that there will be a buyer for every property. That just isn’t the case,” Lewis said. “That’s not just for Wilkinsburg. That’s place after place after place.”

This price problem is compounded by a low volume of vacant property that is brought to the sheriff's sale. Out of the 1,066 vacant properties in the borough, an average of 19 were brought to sheriff’s sale in a given month since the beginning of 2022.

On average, three of those properties were sold per month at these sales.

At its current rate, it will take around 30 years to sell off all of the tax-delinquent properties in Wilkinsburg, assuming that the number of properties doesn’t grow.

Potential new tax bureau in the works, but not ‘silver bullet'

There have been calls to change the sheriff’s sale process in Allegheny County.

Local politicians, including unsuccessful county executive candidates Michael Lamb and John Weinstein, have advocated for creation of a county tax claim bureau.

A tax claim bureau is a unified delinquent tax collection agency charged with identifying properties and bringing them to sheriff’s sale. Each county in the state has one, except for Allegheny and Philadelphia counties.

Philadelphia’s Department of Revenue is responsible for bringing tax-delinquent properties to sale.

Under the Municipal Claim and Tax Lien Law, Allegheny County’s 130 municipalities have their own delinquent tax collectors that are responsible for bringing properties to sheriff’s sale. Lamb, the Pittsburgh controller, said this fragmentation complicates the sheriff’s sale process and leads to properties being left behind.

“There’s no silver bullet here, but the thing that the tax claim bureau can do is expedite the sale,” Lamb said.

State Rep. Abigail Salisbury, D-Swissvale, whose district includes Wilkinsburg, plans on introducing legislation to allow Allegheny County to opt into a tax claim bureau.

State Rep. Abigail Salisbury, D-Swissvale, speaks at the Wilkinsburg Land Bank press conference on July 19, 2023. (Photo by Alexis Wary/Rtvsrece)

Salisbury stressed, however, that a tax claim bureau is not the sole solution for vacant property.

“We have to come at it from multiple directions,” she said. “There’s not only one solution — even though people hope there will be.”

Wilkinsburg Land Bank: vacancy a ‘solvable problem'

Wilkinsburg’s fledgling land bank hopes to take ownership of the bulk of properties brought to sheriff’s sale in Wilkinsburg. Land banks are unique legal entities that can buy properties, clear their titles and then sell them to community members.

Last month, the Wilkinsburg Land Bank received more than $350,000 in grant money from the state and the county. The land bank’s Executive Director Renee Dolney plans to spend the money on acquiring and redeveloping property surrounding Turner Elementary School.

She called the borough-wide vacancy issue a “solvable problem.”

“I think we can do it in 15 years,” said Dolney. “We can put it to bed.”

Wilkinsburg Land Bank Executive Director Renee Dolney speaks to a crowd at a press conference on July 19, 2023. Dolney, who held the press conference at Turner Elementary School in Wilkinsburg, sees the vacancy issue as a ‘solvable problem' with the newly funded land bank. (Photo by Alexis Wary/Rtvsrece)

Dolney said she also hopes to use the land bank to sell properties to households using the Housing Choice Voucher homeownership program, which allows Section 8 tenants to finance a mortgage using their vouchers.

“The land bank is a miracle worker, it really is,” said Wilkinsburg Land Bank board member Paul O’Hanlon.

The land bank’s work may be bolstered by a new law, effective in September, meant to streamline the process by which land banks acquire vacant property.

Sponsored by state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, the legislation makes small changes to the sheriff’s sale process, making it friendlier to land banks. The changes aim to expedite the process by automatically creating a judgment when a lien is filed and removing onerous requirements surrounding the service of documents, among others adjustments.

Conservatorship offers lofty promises, little results

The Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act, passed in 2008, offers local residents and developers the ability to acquire vacant property without a sheriff’s sale.

Under the law, interested parties can go to court and file for stewardship over a vacant property. With court supervision, conservators can have the back taxes cleared, remediate the property and eventually sell it off.

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Originally intended to remedy blight, conservatorship has been used by ambitious landlords to acquire property, sometimes at the expense of property owners.

In Wilkinsburg, conservatorship has been used sparingly. Since January, 163 conservatorship petitions have been filed in Allegheny County. Just under 10% of those were for properties in Wilkinsburg.

“Conservatorship is supposed to be a last resort,” said Gaudi, who has used conservatorship to renovate a commercial property on Wilkinsburg’s Wood Street. Overall, he said, conservatorship has had little impact on Wilkinsburg.

Salisbury said conservatorship’s complexity is responsible for the low number of cases.

“It can be overwhelming, even for lawyers who don’t practice in that area, let alone regular people,” said Salisbury.

County program helpful, but underutilized

The county-run Vacant Property Recovery Program [VPRP] is meant to allow interested residents, municipalities and organizations to buy properties and redevelop them.

Under the program, applicants who have what the county calls a “concrete reuse plan” for vacant properties are allowed to acquire and rehabilitate them. Eligible properties have to be tax delinquent for three years and be less than 1 acre in size.

1104 Rebecca is eligible for the program, but it can only be redeveloped if an applicant expresses interest.

Wilkinsburg Councilman Mike McMullin used the program to acquire a neighboring vacant property and turn it into a side yard for his home.

The program “suffers from the same problems that other programs do, which is that nobody knows about them. It’s difficult for the county or the state to get the word out to people,” said McMullin. “VPRP, conservatorship and sheriff’s sale could all make pretty significant dents if people understood them.”

Despite challenges, residents remain hopeful

Even with these programs, properties like 1104 Rebecca across the borough remain vacant.

Wilkinsburg Mayor Dontae Comans, cradling his son Beau, speaks at the Wilkinsburg Land Bank press conference on July 19, 2023. Comans is optimistic for the borough's future, even as the vacant property issue persists. (Photo by Alexis Wary/Rtvsrece)

“For every one that comes back online, maybe two will fall off. It’s sort of flatlined,” Gaudi said.

Wilkinsburg Mayor Dontae Comans said the land bank’s recent grant and Fontana’s legislation make him hopeful for the future of the borough.

“We had a low time for a long time, and now we’re under a microscope,” Comans said. “It will take all of us to make an impact.”

“It’s not going to happen by itself,” McMullin added, “but the wind is at our backs.”

Lucas Dufalla is an editorial intern with Rtvsrece and can be reached at lucas@rtvsrece.com.

This story was fact-checked by Emily Briselli.

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