Legislators unveil plan to fight blight early Proposed laws would give Phila. and other cities greater power to develop potentially hazardous buildings.

Posted: June 12, 2001

HARRISBURG — Vowing to expand state efforts to combat urban blight, a bipartisan group of lawmakers yesterday announced plans for legislation that would allow Philadelphia and other cities with significant problems to crack down on owners of dilapidated and abandoned property and boost development.

Lawmakers from the House and Senate appeared at a news conference yesterday to announce the proposals, which they said would help rebuild ailing cities and save rapidly disappearing green space. The legislation, in its formative stages, would aim to punish slumlords, increase financing for redevelopment, and allow housing groups to take control of buildings before the structures become hazardous.

"We have lost 500,000 acres of green space across the state because there is an unequal playing field with development. This will level the playing field and strengthen neighborhoods," said Rep. Michael Diven (D., Allegheny), one of about a dozen legislators present.

Philadelphia community development officials said they welcomed any legislative measures to battle the city's staggering blight problem.

"Anything that fights blight, we're in favor of," said Cynthia Bayete, assistant director of the mayor's Office of Neighborhood Transformation.

"These ideas are interesting and innovative," said Herb Wetzel, executive director of the city's Redevelopment Authority.

Wetzel said the proposal to create a statewide computer registry to track ongoing housing code violations or tax delinquencies would help local municipalities zero in on problem property owners.

"You could be a slumlord in Altoona and be doing nice down here" in Philadelphia, Wetzel said. "This would allow permits to be denied down here."

Bayete said the city needed a more efficient way to seize neglected property.

"We would like to be able to renovate it more quickly or, if necessary, take it down more quickly," she said.

Laws drafted decades ago, when people were "clamoring to get into the city," now make it difficult for the city to seize abandoned buildings, Bayete said.

About 14,000 vacant buildings are scheduled for demolition in Philadelphia's $170 million revitalization plan.

Affordable-housing advocates say a number of those buildings could have been saved by a receivership proposal allowing nonprofit corporations to take over neglected properties.

The state legislative package, scheduled to be introduced in September, would build on the successes of a 1995 House resolution that directed the Urban Affairs Committee to examine the causes and effects of blight in cities and towns across the state, lawmakers said.

Among the initiatives contained in 30 bills passed as a result were the Keystone Opportunity Zone program in 1998, which established tax-free economic development zones in deteriorating areas, and guidelines encouraging state agencies to locate all new offices in downtowns.

Among the other proposals announced yesterday:

* Creation of an Urban Investment Trust Fund to finance major capital projects.

* Establishment of a state income-tax-credit program for rehabilitation of older properties.

* Creation of the Pennsylvania Mortgage Guaranty Corp. to guarantee municipal or redevelopment authority loans for economic development or housing projects in blighted areas.

* Making habitual violation of building codes a criminal offense.

* Denial of state and municipal permits to property owners with unabated housing code violations.

Amy Worden's e-mail is aworden@phillynews.com.

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