Jean Laing lives on the 400 block of Ninth Street, across from a house the city's Blighted Property Review Committee determined last week to be blighted.
"It's a pigpen," Laing said.
The property has been vacant since before winter, when the last occupants left to get away from water leaking through the roof, Laing said.
It's the kind of house that could become a target for a countywide blighted property review committee, if local officials succeed in an initiative to create one.
Discussion toward that goal began at a recent Blair County Chamber of Commerce forum, where Christopher Houston, chief counsel for the Department of Community and Economic Development, outlined legislative tools for contending with blight.
Afterward, Williamsburg Borough President Carlee Ranalli proposed working through the Blair County Housing and Redevelopment Authority to get a program going in the boroughs and townships like the one that has existed for years in the city.
Altoona's committee determines blight on individual properties as a necessary prerequisite for allocating federal Community Development Block Grants for demolition of those properties.
Determining the house across from Laing's to be blighted would ordinarily be good news for those who want nearby eyesores gone.
But Wednesday's action merely illustrates a few of the maddening potential complications involved.
Unbeknownst to the committee, a city resident bought the property at a tax sale in June. That will stop the process that would have normally led to demolition through the blighted program.
Instead of confirming the blight through the Planning Commission, then verifying that the owner wouldn't demolish or rehabilitate, city officials now will need to restart the process.
Laing isn't upset for now, because the buyer and his father, a construction worker, plan to rehabilitate the house, she said.
But those kinds of plans are always "a big if," according to Mary Johnson, manager of the Blighted Property Program. Most buyers plan to rehabilitate at first, she said, but most don't get the chance to look inside before they buy.
A glimmer of hope
Still, there's reason for optimism, according to the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance, on whose 2011 booklet, "Quick Guide: New Tools to Address Blight and Abandonment," Houston based his presentation.
Many of those tools came about through the Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act of 2010, according to the booklet.
In years past, communities tended simply to feel "bad" about blight, said Liz Hersh, executive director of the Alliance.
Their programs tended to be complaint-driven only, while now many have moved to a "take charge attitude," she said.
They're going on the offensive, holding property owners accountable, she said.
Tools in the arsenal
The new tools allow for enhanced financial penalties, escalation of civil to criminal action, even out-of-state arrests. Between a third and a half of the state's counties are using some variety of the tools, according to Hersh.
Rental inspection is probably the most common one, she said. Altoona has been using that since 2002.
Then there's the filing of criminal charges against habitual code violators, which Altoona tried with success - although the East Logan Avenue man who was the first target of that effort got only a fine and no jail time in 2009.
Another tool is the code sweep, which Altoona tried between 2007 and 2009 on "gateway" corridors, However, when the program moved to Fourth Street, it withered for lack of volunteers to help correct the problems found.
Among the most potent recent weapons provided by the state are the right to attach private assets of code violators to compensate for municipal costs, the right to deny permits for other projects and extradition of out-of-state violators, Hersh said.
Denial of permits to violators would be a good preventive, according to Altoona solicitor Larry Clapper. But extradition would likely be too expensive to be practical, except in extreme cases, he said.
Then there is "conservatorship," which enables municipalities to appoint a neighbor, a nonprofit, a business owner, a municipality or a redevelopment authority to handle a particular blighted or abandoned property.
The consultant formulating a new comprehensive plan for Altoona has proposed conservatorship, said Planning Director Lee Slusser.
St. Clair has done about 15 conservatorships, including one in which a neighbor put up $15,000 to have a building next door demolished, giving him a nice addition to his property, Hersh said.
Another tool the alliance touts is the right of municipalities to blackball potential buyers at tax sale who are landlords with revoked rental license, tax-delinquent property owners or housing code violators.
A few years ago, Johnson submitted a list of speculators she wanted the county to blackball from an upset sale. But that didn't work, because she would have needed to obtain a court order, said county solicitor Nathan Karn, who runs the sales.
The law sets a steep requirement: three years of uncorrected housing code violations, with a petition filed within 15 days of a sale. "That clearly puts a burden on the municipality," Karn said. "It takes a lot of effort, and people can work around it and play games."
Another tool the alliance is seeking is the "right of first refusal," which would allow municipalities or redevelopment authorities to match the offer of a would-be tax sale buyer - giving those agencies "a trump card" to prevent an irresponsible party from obtaining a property that is likely to remain blighted.
The new tools are producing results, according to Hersh.
In Philadelphia, they have helped create construction jobs, as properties turn over more quickly and rehabilitations occur, she said.
In Allentown, blight fighting has paid for itself with increased fines and license fees, she said.
"Just as blight is contagious," said Cindy Daley, policy director for the alliance, "so is revitalization."
Altoona Mayor Bill Schirf thinks Altoona has made progress.
"We're winning," he said.
But Altoona's Review Committee hardly presented a picture of confidence at its recent meeting, where member Bob Gutshall spoke of reviewing policies and procedures.
"We keep spinning our wheels," Gutshall said.
Likewise, Clapper is restrained.
"[The new tools are] not the panacea many people would think," Clapper said. "[Just] another arrow in the quiver."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.