By Akasha Chamberlain, Point Park News Service:
Raymond Wehring, who has lived on Mt. Washington for 50 years, remembers when his street was vibrant and full of neighbors.
Now surrounded by empty houses instead, Wehring said he wants nothing more than to leave and take his two grandchildren with him.
“If I won the Powerball, I’d buy all these … houses and tear them all down,” Wehring said, gesturing to a vacant property across from his home, which he said has stood empty for years.
With high vacancy rates and a shrinking population in the Hilltop communities south of Pittsburgh’s Downtown, some houses in Mt. Washington have seen better days. Revitalization efforts are in the works through the community non-profit organization, the Mt. Washington Community Development Corporation (MWCDC), but residents said they are still affected by the day-to-day woes of living near blighted properties.
Out of 5,394 residential addresses in Mt. Washington, 757 were considered vacant by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the United States Postal Service in 2012. More than 80 percent were unoccupied for more than a year.
The study found that 177 homes were considered vacant and uninhabitable.
Jason Kambitsis, executive director of the MWCDC, said vacancies can be a problem in select parts of Mt. Washington.
“Really in Mt. Washington it’s portioned to certain pockets of the community where it’s people who have moved on, or the housing stock wasn’t great, or people can’t keep up with their homes,” Kambitsis said. “It’s not rampant throughout the community, but we keep an eye on it and try to deter it anyway we can.”
Further away from Grandview Avenue, with its majestic overlooks of the city and where property value is high, property becomes cheaper and it falls more quickly into disrepair, Kambitsis said.
A two-bedroom condominium on Grandview Avenue is listed on Zillow, a real estate website, for around $400,000, while a two-bedroom property on Norton Street, blocks away on the other side of the neighborhood, costs around $60,000.
The houses are only a five-minute drive apart.
“There are back portions of the community that people do not know about that essentially over time may not have gotten all the attention from real estate developers and owner-occupants — so over time they fall into disrepair,” Kambitsis said.
Boarded up door frames, overgrown yards and paper notices taped to entryways mark several houses as vacant. Norton Street sits in one of those “pockets.”
A few houses down from Wehring, Verna L. Johnson, 85, said she feels unsatisfied too. Bushes from a neighboring abandoned property have crept their way over a six-foot fence and into Johnson’s well-tended yard. They aggravate her allergies.
She has seen rats scurrying out from the yard next door at a property that she said has been empty for at least two years.
“That’s why I don’t chase these cats away,” Johnson said, gesturing to the menagerie of strays gathered by her feet on her porch.
In order to prevent situations like the one on Norton Street, the MWCDC is taking a preventative stance by taking notice of properties that have fallen into foreclosure or that have become tax delinquent.
“We’re actively working to intervene in those properties in those specific areas so they don’t fall into disrepair anymore,” Kambitsis said. “We’re trying to get into a position where we can get into it in the beginning.”
The MWCDC goes through the community looking for houses that have fallen into disrepair by checking for notices posted on doors or visible signs that a property was uninhabited for a while, Kambitsis said.
“We’d rather have people living in houses, rather than just vacant lots,” Kambitsis said.
A vacant lot seems like a good alternative, Wehring said.
“If no one is going to live here, why doesn’t the city just tear them all down?” Wehring said.
After seeing kids hanging out in a neighboring vacant house drinking, Wehring got tired of watching them break beer bottles and had the city board up the doors and windows.
“It’s just a shame,” Wehring said.