Pittsburgh's property lottery

Each year, hundreds of people apply to buy city-owned properties.
Few get what they want, and those who do typically wait years.

Sandra L. Mitchell, 62, at her home in the Hill District on July 23, says she has petitioned the city multiple times for maintenance on the derelict house next door, which has a collapsed roof. A would-be buyer applied to purchase the property from Pittsburgh in 2017, but it remains in city hands, according to public records. (Christian Snyder/Post-Gazette)

Each year, hundreds of people apply to buy city-owned properties. Few get what they want, and those who do typically wait years.

As Melvin Cherry Jr., watched the vacant houses next door to his family home fall into disrepair, he came upon what he thought was a simple solution: His family could buy them from the city and fix them.

Now, more than 2½ years after Mr. Cherry’s parents applied to buy them, the houses continue to deteriorate, with overgrown weeds and loiterers contributing to safety concerns. The city refused to sell the properties on Bryn Mawr Road to the Cherry family, instead agreeing to convey them to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which has not yet taken ownership or improved them.

“Why do you have to live around blight when you have potential buyers who will fix up the properties?” said Mr. Cherry, a lifetime resident of the Hill District who works at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work.

Melvin Cherry Jr and his family live next door to this city-owned vacant home in the Upper Hill District. His family applied to purchase it, but has been denied, because the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority plans to buy it and include it in a multi-property redevelopment effort. Meanwhile, the overgrown vines in the backyard are stretching into Mr. Cherry’s property, and he says he should not have to pay to get them cut. (Haldan Kirsch/Post-Gazette)

Mr. Cherry and his family are among hundreds of would-be buyers who have experienced the prolonged, convoluted and sometimes arbitrary process of acquiring a city-owned property. For a variety of reasons — from URA intervention to city council’s full discretion to cancel a sale without explanation — prospective buyers face uphill battles to acquire blighted properties.

An analysis conducted by the Post-Gazette found that of 1,479 applications filed by individuals and private businesses between mid-2015 and mid-2018 for city-owned homes and lots, only 25 resulted in the publicly recorded sale of the requested property to the applicant by June 2019. The average length of the process for those successful applicants was about two years, four months.

“The worst enemy of a tax-delinquent, vacant, abandoned property is time,” said Kim Graziani, a former Pittsburgh official who is now vice president and director of national technical assistance for the Michigan-based Center for Community Progress. “The more time that passes where that property has no responsible owner,” she said, the more likely taxpayers have to pay “to send police, to send fire trucks, to send the board-up crew to board up property” — or, ultimately, to demolish it.

The property sales process came under scrutiny last year after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the city’s real estate director, Aaron Pickett, sold himself a city-owned vacant home for $2,500. The state ethics committee this month announced that Mr. Pickett violated the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act and must pay a $5,000 fine.

A year ago, city leaders promised more transparency and a faster process for individuals seeking to buy vacant properties through the treasurer’s sale process. At the time, city treasurer and finance director Margaret Lanier said cutting the process down to nine to 12 months would be optimal for the city, although she clarified this month that 18 months would be a more reasonable goal.

Little evidence exists that significant improvements have occurred, especially regarding the sale of city-owned abandoned houses, which tend to cause more concern for neighbors than do empty lots.

The city’s property sale “process is kind of stuck in the 1980s,” said Joseph Schilling, a senior research associate with the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, whose specialty is vacant property. “The downside is that that property is still either underused or vacant and abandoned, and that has negative costs and impacts to the surrounding property owners, the residents,” from decreased property values to increased criminality and the “mental setback” to the neighborhood.

The city and its agencies are “not good neighbors,” said city Controller Michael Lamb. “What we have right now is a mess out there.”



The five-month background check

The city took ownership of the two abandoned, tax-delinquent houses beside the Cherry family’s home in April 2016.

That hasn’t yet led to improvement.

This year a group of teenagers began to use the porch of one of the vacant homes to smoke marijuana, Mr. Cherry said. He shooed them away, but he said he remains concerned about his family’s safety, especially that of his teenage daughter.

A vacant property owned by the City of Pittsburgh at 811 Bryn Mawr Road in the Upper Hill District, on July 30. The Cherry family applied to buy the house and another neighboring, tax delinquent, abandoned house. But the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority blocked the purchase, because it is assembling houses in the area for a multi-unit redevelopment. Meanwhile, the properties continue to degrade. (Haldan Kirsch/Post-Gazette)

According to Mr. Cherry’s wife, Latonia, the city has yet to cut the grass this summer, a complaint echoed by dozens of families across the city who live near city-owned lots.

“When you come home and get out of the car, you don’t want to look at that,” Ms. Cherry said. “There is trash all over that house and the vines are now on our yard. … We don’t allow the kids to play in our backyard anymore.”

Mr. Cherry helped his parents submit an application to buy the properties on Bryn Mawr Road in January 2017. The application states that Mr. Cherry’s father hoped to “restore” the houses “to be used by a family member.”

After receiving the application, the city’s Real Estate Division took more than five months to assure that Mr. Cherry’s father did not owe any back taxes or water and sewage bills in order to approve him as an eligible buyer.

That modest background check almost always adds four months or more to the purchasing process. In 2017, the Real Estate Division approved would-be buyers within 120 days in only 12% of cases, according to Mr. Lamb, whose office is finalizing an audit of city property sales from 2015 through 2017. That was down from 19% in 2016 and 64% in 2015.

Ms. Lanier said the process slowed down because the city had no sales coordinator during most of 2016, and also began to involve the URA in setting property prices.

Some eligibility decisions, Mr. Lamb noted, took as long as nine months.

A who-you-know system?

Savvy applicants for city-owned properties often reach out to their city council member when frustrated at the slow and convoluted process. According to Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill District, council members often walk applicants through the tax sale process, making sure they complete all the necessary steps and follow up with the Real Estate Division to check their application status.

Indeed, all seven successful buyers the Post-Gazette reached said they received help from a council member, community leader or other influential person. One successful applicant, Fritzy Ezzeddine, said the city’s Real Estate Division only reviewed her eligibility as a property buyer when KDKA-TV reporter Marty Griffin called the city on her behalf.

“The fact that a journalist, or a council member or anybody else can come in, and then the property process gets manipulated on behalf of this one-or-other buyer, is a problem,” Mr. Lamb said.

Yet attempting to get in touch with an influential person does not guarantee success.

For months after submitting his application, Mr. Cherry repeatedly reached out to the city’s Real Estate Division and his councilman, Mr. Lavelle, to ask about its status. Despite numerous texts, calls and emails, Mr. Cherry never heard back from them.

“I am aware of his interest and have been in conversation with him,” Mr. Lavelle wrote in an emailed response to questions.

Left:Top: Houses in the 2300 block of Centre Avenue in the Hill District photographed on Aug 8. The third home from the left, 2303 Centre Ave, is a city-owned vacant property in which the roof in the back has partially collapsed, leading to falling bricks and other issues, said Sandra Mitchell, who lives next door. A would-be buyer applied to purchase 2303 Centre from the city in 2017, but it remains in city hands, according to public records. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette) | Right:Bottom:

Sorry, It’s on hold!

Seven months after the city received his application, Mr. Cherry finally got an update on its status. In August 2017, the city treasurer’s office sent Mr. Cherry a letter stating that while his father was approved as a qualified buyer, the properties he sought to purchase were on hold for transfer to the URA.

“On hold for URA can mean a lot of things,” said Nathan Clark, the URA’s real estate director. It can mean that the property is slated for low-income housing, coveted by a community development group, or in an area that is subject to a neighborhood planning process, he noted. “Putting a property on hold means the URA might — but not definitely — buy the property.”

There are “less than 1,000” properties that fall under that category across the city, according to Mr. Clark, but that list is not available to the public. Ms. Lanier said that the city tries to note URA holds, where applicable, on its online list of properties available for sale.

Mr. Schilling, of the Urban Institute, called the interplay between the city, its council, the URA and community groups “a pretty intricate and complex system with a lot of handoffs. … Maybe that could be streamlined.”



“If we owned this property, it wouldn’t look like this.”

In March 2018, more than a year after Mr. Cherry’s father submitted the applications, City Council voted to transfer the Bryn Mawr properties — not to the family next door, but rather to the URA.

The URA and an affiliate organization plan to rehab at least eight properties in the area, in partnership with the Schenley Heights Collaborative, according to Mr. Clark.

The collaborative, a community group that helps convert vacant properties into low- and middle-income housing, is led by Phyllis Lavelle, the councilman’s mother. Both Lavelles — who also own a real estate company in the Hill District — said the collaborative gets no special favors from the councilman or the URA, on whose five-member board he sits.

Ms. Lavelle said she makes sure her son “is aware of what we are doing.” Councilman Lavelle said he supports the collaborative just as he does all other community development organizations in his district.

To date, the URA hasn’t yet taken ownership of the Bryn Mawr houses.

Meanwhile, vines from the vacant property are poking Mr. Cherry’s house. He argues that he shouldn’t have to pay to have them cut.

“If we owned this property, it wouldn’t look like this,” he said.

Ms. Lanier acknowledged that city-owned properties are not well maintained, saying that the city has not invested the needed resources to regularly clean up its thousands of lots. She’s considering a system the URA uses, in which multiple contractors use a phone app to verify that they’ve maintained the agency’s lots on a regular basis.

City public works director Mike Gable said responsibility for tending vacant properties in the city is split among three departments, as well as the URA, and their respective contractors. In recent weeks, he said, he reached out to the directors of the other departments seeking a meeting to coordinate efforts, but it hasn’t yet been scheduled.

Mr. Lamb has a word to describe the condition of vacant property in the city: “Deplorable.”

Slightly faster?

When a prospective buyer gains approval from the Finance Department, and the URA signs off on their proposal, they can make a down payment on the property. Still, there’s no guarantee they’ll get the deed promptly.

This summer, the Post-Gazette reviewed cases in which would-be buyers submitted deposits to buy tax-delinquent properties. Of 56 vacant houses for which deposits had been submitted since April 2018, none had been sold by the city as of early August 2019, according to online county property records.

Ms. Lanier said her office has made “slight” improvements to the speed and accuracy of the process by hiring two data specialists and ensuring that employees know their respective roles. But she noted that the law requires waiting periods after various steps in the process, hindering her ability to make more significant improvements.

In 2014, in an effort to expedite the sale of vacant houses and lots, the city created the Pittsburgh Land Bank, which aims to return blighted properties to productive use.

“A lot of things are changing in Pittsburgh's real estate market. For a long time, there wasn't as much interest in buying publicly-owned land.”

The agency has only acquired one property, a lot in Larimer, though officials are hoping to acquire a few more in September.

This year it did not have any dedicated 2019 funding from the city; it has been running on carryover funds from last year and a single-year grant from The Heinz Endowments.

The Land Bank is seeking its first ever executive director to take the reins before the end of the year.

“A lot of things are changing in Pittsburgh’s real estate market. For a long time, there wasn’t as much interest in buying publicly-owned land. A lot has changed very quickly in the level of public interest,” said Bethany Davidson, the land bank’s director, who is also the URA’s manager of land recycling.

The Land Bank aims to be a single point of entry for people seeking these types of properties, she said.

“There’s still a role for each agency, but hopefully the public facing role for the end user [who seeking to buy property] is one the Land Bank can take on and simplify,” she said.

The slow nature of the treasurer’s sale process may have at least one benefit: slowing down gentrification efforts.

“It’s made it a little more difficult for developers,” said Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. “They’re really not going to be patient and wait for three or four years. They’re going to move on to other targets for acquisition.”

“The property is deleted”

Brandi Cox and her husband, Josh Platek, applied in December 2017 to buy four Spring Garden Avenue lots in hopes of adding to their yard space.

The four lots were among 10 proposed sales submitted in July by the Department of Finance to City Council for approval. Councilwoman Darlene Harris, though, struck them from the agenda.

Council tradition allows the council person representing the district in which a property sits to nix any proposed sale for any reason — or none.

Ms. Harris said she heeds the advice of community groups on whether a property purchase should get her thumbs-up. “What I do is ask them, and they tell me what to do,” Ms. Harris said.

When the properties sought by Ms. Cox appeared on the agenda, she called the Community Alliance of Spring Garden East Deutschtown.

“The process should be uniform, across the board, for everyone.”

Philip Nollen, secretary of the community group, said Ms. Harris gave them only a few hours’ notice before the vote. The group quickly reached out to residents in the vicinity of the property, but none said they knew of the proposed sale. Because neighbors had no inkling of the pending sale, the group asked Ms. Harris to postpone the vote.

Neither Ms. Cox nor Mr. Platek knew that their proposed purchases were on the council agenda — nor that they were stricken from it — until a reporter informed them.

Council could eventually take up the proposed sale, but its removal from the agenda could add months to the process.

“I’m not hopeful that I’ll get it,” Ms. Cox said.

Ms. Lanier said she’d like to see a fairer process, in which buyers don’t need to call council members.

“The process should be uniform, across the board, for everyone,” she said. She bemoaned instances in which “we’ve approved them for sale, we’ve accepted their [deposit] money, and all of a sudden, the property is deleted” by a council member.

“When you have to have a bundle of properties approved by the city council, inevitably, that’s going to be political,” said Mr. Schilling. “I wonder if having that City Council sign-off at the front end [of the tax sale process] might depoliticize and streamline things.”

Time ticks away on Bryn Mawr, as Mr. Cherry awaits the renovation of the neighboring homes. As the weeds grow higher and the houses continue to deteriorate, he mows his lawn, instructs his four children to stay away from the empty houses — and continues to wait.

“I can’t have this [property] like this for another four to six years,” he said despondently.

Kate Giammarise and Rich Lord, rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542, contributed.