Two stories in Tuesday’s edition of the Observer-Reporter – both by staff writer Mike Jones – illustrate well the quandary in which this region finds itself: While new development, mainly commercial, continues here at a rapid pace, older property, mostly residential, continues to deteriorate and become blight at just as rapid a speed.
The front-page article described the difficulty municipal governments face in dealing with dilapidated property. When buildings fall into disrepair, owners can be fined or a lien placed on their property. But too often owners cannot be located, fines are ignored and tax debt builds. If a house is an eyesore and a danger to the public, why not just tear it down? For most municipalities, that’s no simple solution but rather a one-two punch to the budget: They must pay the expense of demolition and at the same time abandon the taxes owed on the property.
Charleroi budgeted $90,000 this year to raze a dozen condemned buildings, but borough manager Donn Henderson thinks the money could be better spent. “It comes out of money that could be used to redevelop the borough for other things,” he said. “We could be enhancing houses instead.”
And that’s exactly what a group of 40 teenagers has been doing this week on Locust Avenue in Washington. The teens, from youth groups of three churches in Washington, are helping homeowners refurbish their property, cutting brush and weeds and picking up litter. The work is the first phase of the Highland Ridge Community Development Corp.’s “Mending Fences” beautification program, the goal of which is to tackle blight in the city, one block at a time.
It is significant that the Mending Fences program has nothing to do with government; it is a reaction by citizens offended by what has happened to the place they call home.
Local governments are limited in what it can do to fight blight. They probably could do more to toughen ordinances and enforce them more diligently, but they cannot legally require their citizens to feel shame or take pride in their surroundings. In this area, no city or borough has the manpower or financial resources to send out crews to pick up litter, cut back weeds and brush or beautify neighborhoods. That litter will disappear only when someone decides he doesn’t want to look at it anymore and takes the initiative to pick it up. The grass and weeds will grow until someone decides to cut them. A neighborhood will grow shabbier, dirtier and more dangerous until some people – in this case, a community organization and a bunch of kids – decide their energy and sweat can really make a difference.
Ideally, much of this commercial development we are experiencing would be solving our problem with blight, as rundown buildings are refurbished or replaced by new ones for stores and offices. But in our world, developers prefer to demolish farmland and forest, where there’s room for acres of parking.
Commercial development can never be lured back to town, however, until the town is where businesses and customers want to be: a clean, safe place with plenty of free parking. Neighborhoods will have negligent, absentee landlords until people want to move to those neighborhoods, buy those houses, repair them, and join with their neighbors to keep their streets safe and clean.
Government can do much to achieve this, but it can do nothing without the support and help of its citizens.
Mending Fences is just that kind of support.