Why taxpayers are fronting bill for demolition of abandoned homes

Investigations

Since 2000, Harrisburg has had an active demolition program to deal with blight. Abandoned homes are not only eyesores, but they can be dangerous.

In many cases, the property owners owe thousands of dollars in back taxes and codes citations, but tracking them down can be difficult.

“It is so easy to walk away from a property in the state of Pennsylvania,” said Dave Patton, Harrisburg Codes Administrator. “All this financial burden of demolition is falling on the taxpayers in each municipality.”

Patton, who has been in codes enforcement for over 20 years, says under current law, the Codes Department enforcement arm is limited. 

“Citations administered by any codes office is pretty much akin to a parking ticket in many ways,” he said.

Getting an already delinquent property owner to pay a fine is no easy task, especially when they are out of the area.

“Citations don’t have any traction across state lines, so we’re left with that sort of malignancy and dilemma. I have (property owners) in Australia now, one in Indonesia, Mexico, England, Switzerland. They just go all over the globe,” said Patton. “When anybody can sit in front of their laptop and buy a property for $500 and auction it off, that’s a broken system.” 

In some cases, the property owners hide behind a corporation and use the property as a tax write-off. Current law does not require a contact name or an officer to be named for the corporation, just an address.

“We’ve had someone start a corporation and when we googled the address, it was actually an intersection in Brooklyn,” said Patton.

Warrants can be issued in some cases, but typically criminal warrants take precedent.  State law also prevents codes officers from giving constables the property owner’s most recent address.

“Under state law, I can’t give them any information on their last known whereabouts according to their driver’s license.  We have all these things working against what we are trying to do,” said Patton. “Something has to be done with state law. That is the only way to make a difference.”

Patton says Harrisburg has spent $250,000 for demolition in Allison Hill over the last two years. Blight is not just a city problem and is spreading to smaller municipalities across the state.

Sen. Patrick Browne (R-Lehigh) introduced Senate Bill 340 bill last session to address some of these issues. The bill is still in committee.

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