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Harrisburg officials act on incremental steps to accelerate battle against blight

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Construction barriers and signage sit in front of a building on Hunter Street in Harrisburg. The structure is slated for demolition that is being overseen by the city's Department of Public Safety.
Construction barriers and signage sit in front of a building on Hunter Street in Harrisburg. The structure is slated for demolition that is being overseen by the city's Department of Public Safety. - (Photo / )

The stage is set — well, almost — for economic development to take off in Harrisburg.

During the past six months, city officials have taken several incremental steps to rein in blight.

From reorganizing codes personnel under the Department of Public Safety and the adoption of a housing court to the approval of a city land bank authority and public tax sale reforms that identify condemned properties, the capital city has made positive strides.

The latter also included a more stringent review process for potential property purchases off Dauphin County's repository list — properties listed for tax sales but never bid on.

First-year Mayor Eric Papenfuse said review of these sales — in the past, never questioned — is critical to the city's housing strategy and post-incinerator debt recovery.

“We didn't have a development strategy for the city. At least we haven't had one for years,” Papenfuse said. “We were also desperate for funds, so we just said, 'Yes.'”

Understanding the potential buyer's plan and how it fits into the community — while weeding out speculators who have no intention of reusing properties or others with tax delinquency issues — is key as Harrisburg works to trim its condemned properties list (see map below).

“Our most bitter battle is with the speculators who purchase then resell and resell and resell condemned properties,” said David Patton, the city's codes administrator. “These moving targets prevent us from attaining scope lock on absentee landlords.”

Patton also has been hobbled by a small enforcement staff. At present, he has five codes officers and a plumbing inspector. The council recently approved two new positions.

'Big deal'

Throw in a simplified zoning code with nine zoning districts instead of 29 — a move that should make it easier for people to invest and businesses to get started — and the first half of the year has been a “big deal,” said Papenfuse, a leader in the “war on blight.”

“It sets the stage as we begin talking about economic development to come,” Papenfuse said, awaiting action by the city school district and Dauphin County on the land bank.

Land banking is ideal for the assembling of properties in areas that are viable for development, Patton said.

Land banks are designed to acquire, manage and market vacant and tax-foreclosed properties. The goal is to clean up the titles on these properties, which often are acquired through tax sales or a county's repository of unsold properties, and get them back into productive reuse.

Demolitions coordinated by the Department of Public Safety are slowly creating lots that could be combined and make for good project areas, Patton added, citing properties demolished on North 14th Street and accumulated land through nearby Regina Street.

“Ideally, it is preferable to focus demolition on one area of real estate, then move on. However, due to collapses, we have been more in an inkblot strategy, and as we continue, the areas will merge to stability,” Patton said.

The next big piece will be a renewed Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance designation, or LERTA. Papenfuse has been in discussions with school district officials and said he would like to see the district take the lead on a LERTA. That could happen as early as August, the mayor said.

The city's last tax abatement ordinance expired at the end of 2010.

“I think we need a strong and all-encompassing LERTA,” Papenfuse said. “But the school district has the greatest stake (in the taxes) and they should make the proposal, which we will then take to the city council.”

LERTA is essential for economic development and the war on blight, the mayor added: “We have to have proper incentives for folks to want to come in and make the investments it's going to take to fix our neighborhoods.”

He is advocating for a 10-year, 100 percent tax abatement. The last incarnation gave owners who added value to any property within the city 10 years to phase in their higher tax rates at increments of 10 percent each year. 

Recent demolition

As of July 15, there were 16 demolitions of blighted structures in Harrisburg. The goal is 30 this year, said David Patton, the city’s codes administrator.

“The numbers are always in some state of flux as some get (demolished), some rise to the occasion of a demo candidate and even some go through rehabilitation,” Patton said.

• 1145, 1146 and 1148 Derry St.

• 418, 420, 422, 424, 426, 428 and 430 S. 14th St.

• 28 and 54 N. 14th St. (site cleanup still needs to be completed at 28 N. 14th St.)

• 1237 and 1253 Swatara St.

• 32 S. 13th St.

• 1345 S. 12th St.

Up next: 1611 Hunter St., followed by 92 and 94 N. 18th St. The city has bid out 19 and 21 S. 15th St., Patton said.

Multimillion-dollar blight

Hundreds: Harrisburg’s Department of Public Safety has more than 380 properties (in red) on its condemned list. About 270 of these blighted structures should be demolished, said David Patton, the city’s codes administrator.

Thousands: Federal Community Development Block Grant money, or CDBG, helps to cover demolition costs. Those funds fluctuate from year to year. In 2012, there was $200,000; $150,000 last year; and $295,000 this year. Income from home sales or other sources can boost available funds, Patton said. In order to maximize funds, Harrisburg does some of the demolition in-house and bids out others.

Millions: The average demolition in Harrisburg costs around $19,500. Patton estimates it would cost at least $5 million to address all of the demolition needs in the capital city. The annual goal is at least 30 demolitions per year, Patton said. He hopes to increase that to 40.

Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jasons@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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