To Sell Vacant Homes, Students Spotlight Their Histories

An historic city just outside Pittsburgh is digging into the past to try to change the public's perception of blighted property.
by | April 8, 2015
A poster promoting the Vacant Home Tour, an effort to reverse blight in Wilkinsburg, just outside Pittsburgh. (Photos courtesy of the Vacant Home Tour)

Pittsburgh owes much of its “City of Bridges” moniker to an Ohio-born man named Vernon Royce Covell, who helped bound an area of rivers and valleys together as an engineer between 1906 until his death about 40 years later. As the designing engineer on improvements to Pittsburgh’s Sixth Street Bridge, which crosses the Allegheny River to the city’s downtown, he earned special honors in 1929 for “the most artistic steel bridge erected in the U.S. or Canada.” For much of his life, Covell resided at 816 South Avenue (shown below in 2015, in 1924, and in 1914, respectively) in the Wilkinsburg neighborhood, a once-prosperous protestant quarter that fell to blight and decay with the collapse of the steel industry.

Those now trying to reverse Wilkinsburg’s fortunes want people to know that history, take a look at how Covell’s house once looked, and consider restoring it. A campaign led by a local community development corporation, college students and residents aims to improve blighted neighborhoods for potential buyers, while also helping them take advantage of incentives to take on these projects and invest community members in the turnaround.

“That’s the draw. That’s what gets you,” said Patrick Shattuck, who heads the local planning commission and works in real-estate development. “I will go explore neighborhoods every waking hour and bring my kids along, but not everyone is like me, and when it’s packaged up in a good story, there’s a good experience and it’s free, along with incentives that might help you for a very affordable amount you could renovate, all of a sudden it’s putting all those pieces together. You could have a very large historic home with historic character for less than six figures.”

816 South Avenue in 2015.

Blight and vacancy are very real problems for municipalities and residents. About 20 percent of properties are vacant in Wilkinsburg, an area of about 15,000 people that separated from the adjacent Pittsburgh in 1871. That accounts for about 1,900 housing units, costing local governments about $26 million a year in services to keep them going and lost revenue from declining property values in surrounding areas.

Wilkinsburg developed a reputation as a gang-infested neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s. A well-publicized shooting at two fast food restaurants in March of 2000 by a mentally ill man hasn’t helped. But the area also has a wealth of durable historic housing, and local governments have tried to encourage redevelopment through tax incentives, as well as programs to fast-track sales and encourage existing homeowners to take on adjacent properties at discounts.

A group of five students from different disciplines at nearby Carnegie Mellon University learned about those offerings as they searched for solutions for a class blending design and public policy. As they met with existing Wilkinsburg residents and toured neighborhoods, they decided problems of perception and limited outreach will forever keep incentive programs underused.

“I think that’s when we realized the problem is a little beyond policy and the houses themselves,” said Rene Cuenca, one of the team members. “There’s this very impactful psychological state.”

816 South Avenue in 1924.

Their idea: to hold a tour targeting a select number of houses that could most easily be turned over and renovated to new owners, with each stop managed by a volunteer “docent” who helps research the home’s history and provides historical visuals. At the end, prospective buyers attend workshops run by experts at the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation to learn about how to access incentive programs. If it works, groups like the WCDC can keep the program going at a minimal cost.

The Carnegie Mellon students are helping the volunteers, residents who came forward at community meetings, conduct research through deed offices, historical societies and other information resources. They’re also “crowdsourcing” some of the research by posting the six selected houses on Facebook and asking people who may know something about them to come forward.

“We’re getting the info from a variety of sources and we’re really trying to get residents and people who know the neighborhood to come forward,” said Kenneth Chu, a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon’s drama department who’s taken a leading role in the group.

Their proposal, running on an estimated $10,000 in grants, recently placed among the finalists at a national public policy contest held by the University of Pennsylvania and Governing Institute.

Group members say they wanted to start off small to prove the program’s effectiveness, carefully selecting properties with the best potential for success. They say they don’t know of another place that has tried their idea to revive a neighborhood, but there was inspiration from within Wilkinsburg. Artist and architect Dee Briggs purchased a house in Wilkinsburg and covered it in 32 gallons of gold paint in 2014 “to emphasize that it still has value,” as she put it. “Everything in the neighborhood once had a relationship with this house. I want people to identify with it again.”

816 South Avenue in 1914.

She documented its transformation through a website, where people also turned up to share memories of the now metallic-gold corner lot next to a bus stop. A place that had become a refuge for litter from people who never gave a second thought suddenly looked pristine again, she recalled.

But the Wilkinsburg Vacant Home Tour might also benefit from something not every place has: proximity to a newly affixed "up-and-comer" in Pittsburgh, which is doing well after decades of decline. Google has set up shop just outside the Wilkinsburg line and young professionals are increasingly flocking to Pittsburgh for reasons like walkability, its distinct neighborhoods and an affordable cost of living.

Still, there’s widespread agreement that an overburdened county and municipal government needs to put more manpower behind the programs they’re offering and considering expanding, because all too often there isn’t enough staff to respond to interested buyers and get them through the process quickly and with little fuss. But that’s why it’s so critical for outside groups and residents to take greater ownership over the process.

“You really have to have people engaged in the community, and that’s what they’ve done so well,” said Tracey Evans, who directs the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation. “If we could do this for five to 10 [properties] every year that are the best candidates to be rehabbed, that’s going to add up.”