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Mike Jones/Observer-Reporter

This vacant apartment building at 400 Motheral Ave. in Monessen is one of more than 100 dilapidated and abandoned properties city officials are trying to help facilitate specialized sales for to get them rehabilitated and back on the tax rolls.

Monessen is, essentially, giving vacant homes to anyone who is willing to repair them. And two officials overseeing the plan said “it is working.”

“We could do a lot with this, and we hope the next administration that comes in can do something with this. It could be a good thing,” city administrator John Harhai said.

Besieged by a high percentage of vacant properties, many in disrepair, the third-class city implemented the plan in March. Essentially, individuals interested in taking over one of these properties could do so by finding the owner; acquiring the property for a small fee through a transfer; signing an agreement to bring the site up to code within 12 months; then undertaking the renovation.

When that occurs, back taxes on a property would be forgiven, along with unpaid city and school taxes. The property would be generating tax revenue again, under the new owner(s). Harhai said Monday that Monessen had $4.5 million in uncollected taxes on vacant properties, which include commercial locations and lots.

“We want people to make the investment to revitalize,” he said. “This is how you broaden the tax base, and if you have children, you’re building the school district at the same time, while getting more benefits from the government.”

Upgrading the community also would enhance property values, which are low in Monessen and some other Mon Valley municipalities.

The program has drawn responses, to be sure. Mayor Matt Shorraw said “42 to 50” of these properties, under new ownership, “are in varying degrees of being completed.”

An article in the Wall Street Journal last week shone a national spotlight on the program – three weeks after a house in the city had been highlighted on HGTV’s “Cheap Old Homes.” The WJS headline reads: “Rust Belt city’s pitch for a hot housing market: free homes.”

Shorraw, who lost in his reelection bid in the May Democratic primary, was quoted in the article as saying the program is “like hitting a reset button on these properties.”

Publication of that story prompted Harhai to hit the message button on his office phone often on Monday. “I got 27 inquiries from across the country,” he said, adding that they included calls from a remodeler from New York state and a real estate representative from Arizona who may visit two properties in Monessen.

He said there is a faction, however, who would prefer to demolish vacant properties in the city – and labeled that as counterproductive.

“You don’t make money if you take down houses. No one is going to give you $1 million to take down houses. We save $8,000 to $10,000 for every house we don’t tear down.

Blight has been problem there for a number of years, one that Shorraw addressed in an open letter to residents on May 17. He credited the adoption of ordinances, the work of a new code officer and implementation of the tax-forgiveness plan as having positive impacts on this issue.

He said then that “this will help improve our neighborhoods and reduce crime. If we can attract more people to move here, it’s possible we could begin to lower taxes.”

Shorraw is pleased with how the program is going and is willing “to share information with other communities that want to try this.”

This is not just a local problem, to be sure. The Wall Street Journal, citing statistics from ATTOM Data Solutions, reported there are 1.3 million vacant homes across the United States, accounting for 1.4% of properties nationwide.

Business Writer

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won eight individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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