Busting ghost landlords in Harrisburg nearly impossible

The face of Harrisburg’s property owners has changed. Slum landlords are becoming less a problem than speculators online.

With a broom in her hand, Amy Noecker sweeps her steps. The Crescent Street resident said cleaning is just her part to make the neighborhood look pleasant. However, she feels it is a lost cause when fighting her neighbors – or lack thereof.

“It’s kind of embarrassing,” Noecker said. “I live right there where the door is open, and,these are all abandoned.”

Home after home along the 200 block of Crescent Street is marked with an orange “X.” Condemned and vacant homes litter the street.

Jennifer Rosarao helps her grandmother spruce up curb appeal by hanging roses. She fears the conjoining town home, a blighted property, will come crashing down.

“They worry about the house coming down,” she said, “because it’s no good.”

Last week, two vacant properties did just that near Derry Street. The city has not said when those homes would be demolished.

In order to uncover the source of this epidemic, City Codes Director Dave Patton sat down for an in-depth look into Harrisburg’s blight issues.

“Once we issue a condemnation order it’s like hot potato,” Patton said. “They want to get rid of it right away.”

Patton explained Harrisburg has become a goldmine for those trying to get rich quick. With the explosion of home flipping TV shows and seminars across the country, many uneducated and first-time flippers are trying to cash in.

“They believe they’re going to make a lot of money flipping properties,” he said, “but not really being aware of what the condition of the properties or regulations of the municipality.”

Basically, blighted properties are traded like toxic stocks across the world online.

“We have actual properties that are more or less getting frequent flyer miles just traveling across the United States, being bought and sold three or four times,” Patton said. “These are the ones that are most problematic.”

They’re called speculators, he explained. People troll real estate websites, bankruptcy listings and tax sales to buy cheap properties.

In mid-April, Roy Davis from Oviedo, Florida bought two properties on Hummel Street for $500 each through a Dauphin County tax sale.

“He sat in the comfort of his living room and bought them off the Internet,” Patton said. “Now, we have an owner in Florida that’s pretty much unreachable as far as citations.”

Patton said Davis bought the properties by just looking at two photos online and never saw the properties in person. What the photos did not show was the massive fire damage on one property and the roof collapse on another. Renovations to sell the homes would cost upwards of $80,000 to $120,000 each.

Sale documents state Roy Davis Enterprises purchased the properties. His business is listed on several real estate websites. When abc27 attempted to contact the business and Davis’s home, numbers were said to be no longer in service.

At any given time, Patton said there could be 80 to 100 property owners who live outside Pennsylvania. Due to current state laws and lack of resources, municipalities such as Harrisburg are unable to track these ghost landlords.

“Issuing citations, you might as well write them on water because they’re just not going to have any traction if they’re going to an owner in Illinois or Utah,” Patton said. “We actually have some owners out of the country.”

Patton said some property owners live in Europe and South America.

His idea is to reform the state tax sale laws and require bonds with renovation amounts be attached to the properties.

State Rep. Patty Kim (D-Dauphin) said she has been asked to co-sponsor bills that would improve funding and empower municipalities to go after absentee property owners.

“The state is doing something, but I think there’s a lot more we can do,” Kim said. “We really need to put teeth in the laws to keep this from happening and hurting our municipalities across the state.”

Harrisburg has roughly 24,000 properties, according to the U.S. Census. According to city records, there are 386 condemned properties. Harrisburg City owns another 600 blighted properties. The number of absentee property owners, it all equates to about 10-percent of Harrisburg’s tax base wasted on blight.

Several neighborhoods in uptown or Allison Hill have rows of condemned properties. Many often ask why not just knock them down? Cost is one issue. The city’s annual demolition budget is $173,000. In 2014, Harrisburg has already spent more than $140,000.

Besides costs, Patton said empty lots are not in the city’s plan.

“It’s just not always our goal to destroy all the housing stock in the city,” he said. “It’s just not good for anyone. We don’t want a city that’s just filled with vacant lots.”

According to Patton, eminent domain laws often bar city codes from condemning a property. He explained that even when the city does take over a condemned property, it is up to the city to pay fair-market value. Then, the city must cover the renovation, marketing, taxes and upkeep costs. All could rack up to $150,000 to $200,000 per property.

“The city has to maintain them,” he said. “We have to shovel the snow. We have to take care of the illegal dumping, the high grass and weeds.”

Patton and other city employees said previous administrations never had a comprehensive plan to attack blight. Past programs did little to prevent blighted properties or go after the culprits.

Recently, the Papenfuse administration announced the first-ever Housing Court. Patton said this will streamline the judicial process when it comes to citations and hearings with Pennsylvania-based landlords. However, he admitted the Housing Court will do little in the beginning to attack out-of-state property owners.

Patton said Papenfuse is committed to the problem. In the coming weeks, an economic development plan will be unveiled, which will include steps to control blight in the city’s new Building and Housing Department.

“To start taking properties before they become blighted and then try to market them. It’s going to be a slow-go doing that,” Patton said. “This administration is up to the challenge.”

It’s the same song Noecker said she has heard before. As she put it, forgive her if she is skeptical.

“They said they would get on it right away,” she said. “Nothing has been done.”

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