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City Making Progress on Demolition Backlog

By Jason Togyer | Posted in: News | May 04, 2016 | The Tube City Almanac

The city is making progress on tearing down abandoned houses and is getting cooperation from at least one of the country's largest banks.

At last night's work session, McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko told council that at least a dozen vacant houses have been torn down by city public works employees since Jan. 1, and said likely "40 to 50" have been demolished in the past two years, when McKeesport purchased a piece of heavy equipment known as an excavator.

Paying an outside contractor to demolish a house can cost $8,000 to $10,000. At those rates, Cherepko said, the city's excavator "is more than paid for."

In at least one case, he said, the home mortgage division of Wells Fargo & Co. transferred an abandoned house to the city, along with $10,000 to pay for its demolition. The bank had taken ownership of the house in a foreclosure when the previous owner defaulted on their mortgage.

"They are the one national lending institution that has taken responsibility for their properties" in McKeesport, Cherepko said.

City council will vote this week on whether to transfer two vacant parcels of land --- including one in the 900 block of Summitt Street, where an abandoned house once stood --- to the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport.

The redevelopment authority, in turn, will offer those parcels for sale to neighboring property owners. "It not only eliminates blight, it puts them back on the tax rolls pretty quickly," Cherepko said.

Under state law, he said, the redevelopment authority is required to sell the parcels for fair market value --- usually $300 to $500 --- plus the cost of clearing away any old tax liens, which can take nine months to a year and cost about $2,000.

(Although the Summitt Street parcel once held a house, the other piece of vacant land to be transferred is a sliver of property, only 25 feet wide, along Rockwood Alley in Christy Park. The lot has been owned by the city since 1975.)

There are limitations to the types of demolition work that city crews can do, officials said. Cherepko said that at the request of the city's insurance carrier, McKeesport crews only tear down vacant homes if they're not near any occupied structures.

In addition, Cherepko said, the demolition work can only be done when public works employees are not busy with other projects. "We don't have a demolition crew out constantly," he said. "But I'm in a hurry to get these houses down quickly. My goal would be to try to do one per week --- it would be nice to do 52 every year."

Although estimates vary, officials in the past have said that hundreds of abandoned homes exist in McKeesport.

The 2010 U.S. Census estimated that out of 10,000 housing units in the city --- including apartments --- 17 percent, or 1,735, were empty. The census estimated that 1,103 of those units were abandoned and neither for rent nor for sale.

Another 20 to 30 abandoned houses will likely be torn down this year through the use of federal Community Development Block Grant money, officials said.

In a related matter, city council is also expected this week to vote to extend for two years a contract with Community Champions Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., to track and register foreclosed properties within McKeesport.

The program is done at no cost to the city, and in fact, Community Champions pays McKeesport about $200 for each property it registers.

When and where available, the company provides contact information for houses that have been repossessed by mortgage companies and banks, City Solicitor J. Jason Elash said. "One big concern we've had is that if a property is in foreclosure, it can be hard to find the right contact at a (national) bank," he said.

Until Community Champions began providing its service, Elash said, "if you had a dilapidated property or the grass was high, it was hard to get hold of anyone."

Council meets at 7 p.m. tonight (May 4) on the second floor of the public safety building (old municipal building) at the corner of Lysle Boulevard and Market Street, Downtown. The meetings are open to the public.

Originally published May 04, 2016.

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