Working to Rebuild Pennsylvania’s Communities
Nick DiFrancesco (ND): Thank you Senator for taking the time to sit and talk with us about a policy issue in which you have invested a sizeable amount of time and effort, blight. You’ve been involved with this issue dating back to your days in the State House. What’s been your motivation for being such a staunch advocate for tackling this complex policy item?
Senator Dave Argall (DA): As you noticed from driving in this morning, it’s an important issue here in the district. Unfortunately many of the communities that I represent in Schuylkill and Berks counties have been affected by blight. A state representative from Bucks County told me once during my time in the House with the Urban Affairs Committee, “If you visit any community that has been subjected to a degree of economic distress, you are going to find blight”. There’s a lot of truth in that statement.
You might find neighborhoods full of blighted properties in Philadelphia whereas in smaller towns it might only be a few scattered buildings, but it certainly affects many of the communities in Pennsylvania, large and small.
ND: Have you found there’s one common denominator when it comes to blight creeping into a community? It seems in many occurrences it’s an indirect result of an industry leaving town or having a severely diminished presence.
DA: You nailed the most important issue; it comes down to the economy. Here in Schuylkill County you have communities that have been affected by blight because of economic distress, the decline of the anthracite coal industry. Right now anthracite coal is around 2% of its 1917 peak production so that long of a decline has been felt by a number of communities. In western Pennsylvania steel towns aren’t what they used to be and in Philadelphia, beginning around the early 1950s, you have tens of thousands of people moving out of the city. In that last instance you have the same problem but it’s a different variable.
ND: What would you say blight looks like in your senatorial district from a thirty thousand foot perspective? Whenever you have even one instance of blight there must be some negative impact on the community at large.
DA: Absolutely. It can be like a cancer and it is definitely contagious. The encouraging takeaway is that the cure, community revitalization, has similar contagious attributes. I’ve seen people come in and fix up a home, sometimes as simple as a new coat of paint, and then before long the guy next door is putting a new coat of paint on his home and fixing up the siding. I have seen some very successful anti-blight strategies so there is cause for optimism.
ND: It sounds like some of the best remedies or strategies are these grassroots efforts where the community begins to take ownership of these problems.
DA: It usually comes from grassroots inspired endeavors but I think the most successful community revitalization projects I’ve seen are public-private partnerships. There’s always a private component where the residents and the businesses in the community desire a positive result but the local government, and perhaps the state government, is very involved.
ND: What have been the bright spots in your district and who have been some of the best partners?
DA: The Schuylkill Economic Development Corporation (SEDCO) has worked with the private sector and our local, county, and state government to create literally thousands of new jobs. You can see all along I-81 the development and job opportunities and that has been a godsend. Pottsville, Hamburg, and Tamaqua have had pretty successful downtown revitalization efforts. Sinking Spring has begun a downtown revitalization project which they call “BOSS 2020” which has begun to make a real difference there. Even in places like Shenandoah, where the population declined from 30,000 residents to less than 5,000 in the past hundred years, they’ve got the building blocks in place for successful revitalization.
People understand that you aren’t going to turn back the clock to the 1950s, 60s, or 70s but you don’t have to put up with blight and decline.
In Tamaqua, one of the key factors has been the Morgan Foundation. John Morgan was a very successful local entrepreneur who had created a new kind of thermal underwear following World War II and upon his passing left tens of millions of dollars to the community to build a new community college and provide free tuition to every student at Tamaqua High School if they chose to attend the community college. And so with a portion of the funds they turned my old abandoned junior high school into a community college. Not every community is afforded the same luxuries but it demonstrates the critical need that is filled by private sector.
ND: You talked earlier about how the physical attributes of blight start showing when there is economic decline over a period of time. Obviously a blighted property does not take on those characteristics overnight so can you discuss, based on your experiences, the timeline and preventive steps that can be used to stunt blight from expanding?
DA: Code enforcement is of critical importance and I know many communities are concerned that it’s not cheap, it’s not free. The thing is that if you do it right you can at least break even and it can pay for itself. One of the lessons learned is that it is a critical component that cannot be overlooked. We’re also looking at some successful demolition programs that use Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding, usually with some component of a local match, and it’s proven to be tremendously successful.
The need is so much greater than the funding available so in the last legislative session I introduced, along with several of my colleagues, several bills to try and identify additional funding for demolition projects. Rehabilitation of a blighted property is great but it’s not always feasible. Schuylkill County used to have a population of 250,000 and now that is down to less than 150,000. We’re never going to have the need to save every single house and some of them are just too far gone. In circumstances where you can do the rehabilitation, it’s a lot cheaper but sometimes the property is just too far gone and it’s too late. In those situations demolition is your only real option.
What I’ve learned is that one winter with a leaky roof can have a devastating effect upon a building. Maybe it was a building that had an issue with foreclosure or maybe it was that no one wanted to come back to an inherited family homestead. There are a multitude of reasons for why it can get to that level but the issue is that the sooner you can get to the problem the better it is. It doesn’t take too long for one minor issue to lead to a complete deterioration.
ND: Just so we’re on the same page, it sounds like you’re referencing blighted properties that are vacant or abandoned. At one point it may have been lived in but the neighbors can’t be so sure anymore that anyone’s home or if it’s been abandoned.
DA: The vast majority of these properties are the ones that are vacant and abandoned. It becomes an entirely different issue when you’re talking about management of a property wherein people are living.
The neighbors end up becoming the victims. It doesn’t just hurt their quality of life or the value of their home, but we’re talking about people whose wall is starting to leak because the neighbor abandoned the property and there’s a hole in their roof. That can have a significant impact if you’re in a row home or attached housing unit.
The law protects the property owner and that can be a good thing. Unfortunately in that same law, if the house is in foreclosure or tax sale of some form it can take years to go through the process. If your wall is leaking that’s not the story you want to hear from your local borough manager. You want an immediate answer and to know this is not going to be your nightmare for a long period of time. Some states have begun to look at this issue and are tackling the issue through expedited foreclosure processes.
We’ve had some early discussions here in this state on the issue. We’ve also looked at the tax sale law to see if there’s any way we can shorten the process. This coming session I’ll continue to be very much involved in those issues.
ND: This is very much a multi-dimensional and complex issue with several factors at play. What other obstacles, besides the cost of demolition, have you identified?
DA: The top challenge is the very diversity of Pennsylvania. It’s a challenge in that not every community is forced to deal with this issue of blight to the extent others are. When I’m talking about this issue with my colleagues some of them say, “I have these problems in many of my communities” while others who represent more prosperous, healthy communities might have only a few blighted buildings in an isolated area. In Schuylkill County it’s a much larger issue, because of our anthracite coal mining heritage. What we did in drafting the legislation on demolition funding is we’ve left it with a county option. The idea is that if you as a county want to assess a fee for demolition go ahead and then all of those fees stay within the county. If on the other hand you’re a county that doesn’t have a significant blight problem there isn’t a need to assess the fee.
ND: I think that approach is interesting because it can provide greater flexibility to counties who may have a greater need for demolition as compared to those that may not at this time. It still keeps the door open down the road if it does become an issue but for those counties needing immediate relief, there’s an avenue and it gets the counties more involved and taking an active role.
DA: My good friend, the late Senator James Rhoades deserves a great amount of credit for the progress that has been made so far. He had been very active in putting together a statewide blight task force in 2007. When I succeeded him in 2009 we kept that task force going and on a regular basis we’d meet with local elected officials, different stakeholder groups including bankers and realtors and apartment owners, and several new bills have been passed in the last few years that gave communities more tools to tackle blight. They can now go after the assets of a problem landlord. We aren’t talking about the landlord that keeps their properties maintained and provides housing options in the community. We’re talking about the landlord that for years would thumb their nose at the community. If they live out of state they can now be extradited back to Pennsylvania. We keep hearing that the asset attachment component of the 2010 law is probably the most valuable tool for communities.
It has been a multi-pronged strategy to empower communities that are fighting blight. We’ve given local communities more tools, we’ve made education a significant component to make sure they are aware of the tools, but at the end of the day they still need monetary resources. As you can imagine, when the state budget is as hard pressed as it is, it becomes a real challenge.
ND: We’ve talked about how communities dealing with blight have typically been impacted by the decline of an industry or some form of economic downturn. Besides dealing with blighted properties, what other issues are these communities facing that are inhibiting growth and development and how are those obstacles being resolved?
DA: I’m reminded of Senator Rhoades’ “spaghetti bowl” theory of government; that everything is related to everything and it’s all tied together. One of the things that we’ve noticed is that if you have a number of blighted structures in your downtown or your neighborhoods that can scare away new employers from coming to that community. Tamaqua began its very successful downtown revitalization effort because they realized that more than 500 jobs were important in the downtown. They also found that if they were trying to recruit a doctor for the hospital a few miles away they needed to really fix up the downtown. Simply put, the blighted properties were scaring away employers, employees, and residents.
There’s an economic component to revitalization efforts like we’ve seen in Tamaqua. You also talked about some of the other possible strategies. Anything we can do to improve the state’s economy and job climate, that’s going to help you in fighting blight. Maybe it’s not so much in the blighted properties that exist now, but at least in preventing the new from occurring.
The other very promising strategy which we’ve seen is the City Revitalization and Improvement Zone (CRIZ) program. Obviously it is still in its early stages in Bethlehem and Lancaster but the concept has been extraordinarily successful in Allentown, with an estimated one billion dollars in new private sector investment. That’s “b”, as in “billion”—how many struggling communities in Pennsylvania can make that claim? That’s the best anti-blight program I’ve ever witnessed, other than the East Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall.
This program was the very creative invention of my colleague Senator Pat Browne, made possible due to his background as a CPA and a tax attorney. He invited me to Allentown to view the progress and noted that, because of their designation, they now have more people working and visiting in downtown Allentown than they’d seen for forty years. Tamaqua was just awarded the pilot designation for a new pilot CRIZ, the only one available so far for a borough or township. I worked with Senator Browne and many others to amend the law to try this small-community pilot as an experiment. I was very pleased that Tamaqua was willing to work on its CRIZ application for more than a year and now we’re going to prove if this program that has been successful in third class cities can also be successful in a much smaller community. I believe it will.
It’s a curious thing because as you know I represent western Berks County and there, some of the fastest growing communities still have to deal with the issue of blight. It’s just a little more isolated than in other parts of the district. We’re working on a downtown revitalization strategy for Sinking Spring and there the challenge is mostly transportation. Their roads were laid out for horses, not tractor trailers. They’ve got a fairly hectic traffic configuration with four or five different directions and it is a nightmare for residents every morning. There it’s not only revitalizing an old downtown but also creating a new one on another street so there isn’t a recurring traffic jam every day.
ND: A lot of times that is the right idea, but it’s the one we don’t give much consideration.
DA: I give a lot of credit to the success of West Reading and the improvements that have been made there as a catalyst for other communities wanting to take a closer look and see if their success can be recreated.
ND: Let’s talk about your new role as Senate Republican Policy Chair. I know you mentioned retaining an active role in tackling blight but what are some of the other issues you’re going to be taking a hard look at in your new leadership capacity?
DA: We’re going to focus on the job climate issues because they are just so important, all across the state. We will also research welfare reform and education issues with this simple idea “the best welfare program is a real job”. We aren’t talking about a boondoggle, made-up job, but “get educated and get up every morning and go to work” real private sector positions. Those are just a few of the issues that I’m looking forward to working on over the next two years in my position as our new Policy Chairman for the Senate Republican Majority.
When I was in the House I held a variety of other leadership positions. With my new role in the Senate, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to work with some good people, both inside and outside of government.
This interview can be found featured in the February 2015 issue of Transactions. Not a subscriber? Visit the Transactions page on this website or call PACB at 717-231-7447 to start receiving the magazine.