The Vacant Home Tour through Wilkinsburg took place on a hot Saturday, May 9th. 88 degrees was too hot to bike from Millvale comfortably, but I didn’t know that until I was standing (uncomfortably) at the registration desk. The walking tour was a little over two miles round trip and, while technically not in the City of Pittsburgh, included a hill or two. Each tour goer picked up a booklet that had descriptions of each home and a map then were sent up the hill to Singer place to the first home.
Nobody is in denial of this being an uphill battle and even the most enthusiastic potential vacant home-buyers have their optimism tempered. Crime is in the back of your mind when you consider moving to Wilkinsburg; one of the docents tells me that their car damaged in a shooting recently, and another tour taker is overheard saying that their neighbor’s car was stolen. But perhaps more disturbing for potential home buyers are the taxes. One of the docents introduced me to the phrase ‘tax trap’ to describe Wilkinsburg’s situation: Wilkinsburg’s population has declined to about half of what it was in 1950, and the borough, having to maintain an area of the same size, had no choice but to levy higher and higher taxes on the residents that remain. Now, the only way to lower the tax burden is to attract new residents, who are scared off by the high tax burden. Community groups are trying to reduce barriers to home ownership in their own ways. For instance, the borough is being more aggressive about seizing tax-delinquent properties so that interested buyers don’t have to track down the owners on their own. Meanwhile, the WCDC is talking to banks ahead of time about the viability of restoring properties so that lenders don’t simply dismiss a loan application for a distressed property. But remove or navigate every other obstacle, and the taxes still remain the last, highest barrier. Tax deferral programs are difficult to take advantage of, and taxes that seem manageable when a vacant home is purchased can quickly become unmanageable after renovations are complete and the property is reassessed.