In November 2008, The Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act passed into law, allowing neighbors or community groups to become court-appointed “conservators” and bring neglected buildings up to code when owners fail to comply. Currently, there are about 50 petitions for conservatorship pending in Allegheny County.

By Ashlee Green

Photo by Renee Rosensteel

Editor’s Note 10/16/2019: This article was a finalist in the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania’s 2019 Golden Quill Awards.

Imagine walking down a familiar neighborhood street, admiring its neat rows of houses and yards, when you come across an abandoned home with a tree growing out of it, or one with a makeshift sign reading “RATS LIVE HERE” displayed in the window.

That’s what happened to Judge Don Walko, Jr., a justice on the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas and former Pennsylvania State Representative, as he was campaigning door-to-door in Lawrenceville, one of his previous legislative districts.

“I used to know every street. I knew where the dogs lived,” said Walko.

He called both of the blighted properties he found the “scourges of their respective neighborhoods.” That is to say, he was passionate about urban blight and neighborhood revitalization.

Inspired by his personal experience in Lawrenceville, and with the advice of Judge Irene McLaughlin Clark, a former Pittsburgh Housing Court magistrate, Walko helped draft a bill that became the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act. The bill, which passed into law in November 2008, provides for “court-appointed conservators to bring residential, commercial and industrial buildings into municipal code compliance when owners fail to comply.”

Walko now hears all conservatorship cases in Allegheny County and said there are about 50 petitions currently pending at various stages throughout it, including one in Perry Hilltop.
“It’s ideal for some neighborhoods in the Northside,” said Walko.

Judge Don Walko, Jr. now hears all conservatorship cases in Allegheny County. Photo courtesy of Judge Don Walko, Jr.

Here’s how it works: A neighbor or neighborhood group submits a petition to the court requesting to appoint a conservator to rehabilitate a run-down property and a “fact-finding hearing” is scheduled. The building must meet what the act determines as “conditions for conservatorship,” including that it has not been legally occupied for at least a year, has not been on the market for at least 60 days and is not subject to being foreclosed. The property owner must be notified, if they can be found, and has the right to contest the appointment of a conservator.

“The owner remains the owner, even as the property goes through a conservatorship,” explained Walko.

Being notified, Walko said, is sometimes a wake-up call for neglectful property owners. If the owner gives the court a detailed plan for abatement—or how they will fix the building—and follows through on it within a predetermined time frame, the conservatorship can be dismissed.

If the conservatorship is approved and the property brought up to code, the court decides how an to whom the building will be sold Proceeds of the sale go toward court costs, governmental liens, legal costs for the petitioner, rehabilitation costs, and finally, the original owner.

Conservators, though, Walko warned, are not just doing a good deed for a community: They have responsibilities.

“[A conservator has] the powers and rights over the property, but they also have duties,” he said, like acquiring insurance for and securing the property, applying for public grants and contracting for the building’s maintenance.

Conservators must be willing to “go the distance” on a particular property, which Walko said attracts dependable personalities. The process, because it’s so strategic and deals with one property at a time, is typically more efficient than other options for neglected properties, like land banks and sheriff’s sales.

“You have somebody coming in for the express purpose of bringing the property back to code, bringing it back to life,” said Walko. “The people coming in to do it are dedicated to the purpose of rehab.”

Properties acquired through conservatorship are available with a clean title, meaning that all liens except for governmental ones are removed.

“It’s in the [interest of the] county, city, school district… If there’s a property that’s been vacant and ignored for 20 years, it is now suddenly coming back on the tax rolls, bringing them back to code,” said Walko. “That’s the beauty of it.”

Some residents see the process of conservatorship differently though, said Walko, and throughout the years, it’s had resistance in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

“All of these safeguards are in place because you are taking private property,” said Walko.

“There are some people that just don’t believe government should have anything to do with their property.”

In Philadelphia, where Walko said there have been more than 200 conservatorship cases, people are pushing back on the legislation because they’re worried it will cause a surge in gentrification.

“It’s not the end-all,” Walko said of the legislation. The bottom line, he said, is that it was enacted as a “tool in the anti-blight toolbox.”

Still, to Walko, each conservator appointment is a celebration.

“It’s a joyous thing that you can do in court,” he said. “It’s like doing an adoption or a wedding. I feel like having champagne on hand.”

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