One Municipal Drive
Natrona Heights, PA 15065
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Harrison Township Allegheny County, PA

Data may be most valuable tool in the fight against blight

Madasyn Czebiniak | Saturday, April 15, 2017, TribLive Valley New

Lindsay Fraser, acting code enforcement director for Harrison, shows a blighted property at 54 Center St. in the township’s Natrona neighborhood. Fraser, with township Commissioner Charles Dizard, helped to create a property database the township uses to fight blight.

Chuck Dizard was fighting blight in Harrison long before he was a commissioner.

It all began in 2010 with a spreadsheet.

On it, Dizard put descriptions, addresses, and tax delinquency information about every property in the township.

Four years later, the township brought in a Carnegie Mellon graduate student to turn the spreadsheet into a full-blown database. Last year, it hired a Penn State graduate student to conduct exterior condition surveys on all its properties, which has helped with ordinance upkeep and landlord obligations.

Dizard is working with the University of Pittsburgh on color-coded maps that would show which properties are investor-owned, which are tax-delinquent or all of the properties in a given area that have code enforcement actions.

Information contained in the database includes:

  • Property addresses;
  • Ownership details, including names and addresses;
  • States codes regarding property use;
  • Delinquent tax information;
  • Property maintenance citations;
  • Code enforcement and disruptive behavior issues and complaints.

A work in progress

Though in its beginning stages, Dizard considers the database to be the “critical tool” in terms of eradicating blighted and vacant properties in the township. A contributing factor to the problem is the fact that more homes are being converted into rental units.

Data from the 2010 Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission Census show that 31.2 percent of Harrison’s homes are rentals and 5 percent are vacant. Harrison also has “by far” the highest percentage of homes built before 1970, compared to 11 other municipalities of its size, the census says.

“(When) you have a combination of high rental percent (and) old structures, you are facing (a) real property maintenance challenge,” Dizard said.

Dizard said the database allows the township’s zoning office to track which properties have changed hands and the leverage to hold landlords accountable to standards set in the township’s property maintenance codes.

If properties are tax delinquent, owners can’t rent them out, Dizard said.

Lindsay Fraser, Harrison’s acting supervisor of the zoning office, says the database serves as a “report card” and “file folder.”

She said she would like to see it evolve to the point where her office can use it effectively against blight, and the township has demonstrated a continuous dedication in moving toward that goal.

Harrison this year hired a consultant to perform additional work on the database. The consultant has compiled reports on investor-owned and commercial properties that have tax delinquencies, which means the office can go after any landlords who are in violation of the ordinance.

“The ordinance is crystal clear,” Dizard said. “If a landlord owes any of the property taxes or a water bill, they are not legally permitted to rent their apartment.”

The database additionally tracks any building permits or zoning certificates a property has obtained, which can help the zoning office if it has to resort to legal action, Fraser said.

Dizard said that the consultant will work on the database’s mapping capabilities and also update its property grading system, which rates properties on an A through F scale.

Fraser said the mapping component will help her office evaluate which areas of the township they should focus on because “it’s more effective to concentrate on reclaiming neighborhoods block-by-block than doing spot demolitions and reactive enforcement.”

Others also turn to data

Harrison isn’t the only municipality that has turned to data to deal with vacant and blighted properties.

Bob Gradeck, program director of the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center at the University of Pittsburgh, said municipalities such as Wilkinsburg, Penn Hills, East McKeesport and Homestead have also used data to target those issues.

Dizard said Harrison has been working with the center and other officials in that regard. He said the work group recently had the opportunity to check out Harrison’s database and the response was positive.

“They said, ‘My gosh, what we have nobody else has that is as comprehensive and as integrated,'” Dizard said.

Gradeck said Harrison is doing “a great job” given its resources and size. He said, in terms of blight alleviation, it would be lost without its database.

“The kind of response that you take to individual properties is really informed by that kind of data that you have,” Gradeck said. “There’s a lot that you really can’t see from the street. So you don’t know, for example, if the owners (have) been paying their property taxes or even if the owner’s passed away. You really have to have that full picture.

“Putting together information … helps them to develop the right kind of strategy for in particular parts of the community or even individual properties. Without that data they’d be just shooting in the dark.”