As the fight against blight continues in neighborhoods across the area, the city of Altoona is moving forward on plans to utilize a recently-passed state law that could make it easier to get vacant properties into the hands of developers who will clean them up.
The law, sponsored and championed by Somerset-area state Sen. Pat Stefano (R-32), allows local governments to allow their redevelopment authorities to act as land banks. For Altoona, this means the city doesn’t have to create an entirely new land bank agency and can instead simply give new powers to an existing agency.
“With or without this legislation, it was still something I was going to try and move forward with,” said Mayor Matthew Pacifico. “But this just makes it a little bit easier to use an existing authority that’s already there.”
Among other things, this change, if approved, would allow the city to act more quickly to acquire properties that are vacant and get those properties to developers. It would also allow the city to forgive back taxes on properties, making them more attractive to potential developers while also getting those properties into the control of someone who will actually pay the property taxes.
For many local communities, as populations shrink, abandoned properties quickly become eyesores or safety hazards. In some cases, a property owner may die without leaving the house to any family, meaning either the city or a new developer has to take care of it. In some cases, particularly in Johnstown, people who abandon properties are hidden behind shadowy LLCs or are out of state and difficult to communicate with.
The land bank legislation, many officials have said, wouldn’t fix the blight problem — but they said it would be another tool in the toolbox. In Altoona, city council will have to approve the land bank ordinance at the next two meetings for it to take effect.