When Don Walko's anti-blight bill passed in Pennsylvania 11 years ago, the legislator sold it as a way to clean up run-down and abandoned properties. But now economic development nonprofits are using it to evict residents from their homes—often without due process and sometimes without the homeowners finding out until it's too late to stop the seizure.
Earlier this week, Kate Giammarise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the heart-wrenching story of a family in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, who learned they were being kicked out of their home because it had been claimed by a "conservatorship." Under a state law passed in 2008, individuals and nonprofits are able to petition a special court for permission to be named as a "conservator" of blighted properties—effectively trampling on the property rights of the homeowners, like Shakeea Washington and Wayne Little, who only learned they were being kicked off their own land when a notice appeared on their front door.
Washington and Little are now suing in federal court, claiming the law does not provide sufficient due process for property owners. It sure seems like they have a point. To be granted conservatorship over a property, a would-be conservator has to show a judge that the property is "vacant, dilapidated, or harmful to the community," writes Giammarise. Those vague standards—espescially the last one—seem to invite abuses, and quasi-governmental economic development nonprofits appear to be making liberal use of the law. More than 60 conservatorship cases are pending in Allegheny County, includes the City of Pittsburgh and its suburbs, such as McKeesport.
One more thing: the former state representative who drafted the law is now a judge, and he hears a lot of those Pittsburgh-area cases. When the law was passed, Walko told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "We are telling people, 'Your right to private ownership ends when you let it become abandoned, blighted and rat-infested.' We will err on the side of the neighborhood." Not exactly the sort of impartial perspective you hope to hear from the guy deciding whether you get to keep your home.
The story calls to mind the skewed quasi-judicial system that the City of Philadelphia used to use to adjudicate civil asset forfeiture cases, which the city finally shut down in 2018—four years after it became the target of a federal lawsuit. It also contains an echo of the infamous eminent domain case Kelo v. New London, in which a Connecticut city sought to use an anti-blight law to condemn and demolish several homes in order to build a corporate office complex.
The complicating factor in Washington and Little's situation is that they do not have a deed for the property. Little claims he bought the home from the heir of a deceased former owner for $2,000 and a promise to cover back-due taxes but never received the deed. That's something that probably could—and maybe should—be sorted out in court. But that's far different form the situation that the couple find themselves in now.
"All the bills are in our name. Every repair has been fixed by us," Washington tells the Post-Gazette. "When our water tank broke, we replaced it, we put a new roof on the front, we remodeled the whole entire bathroom." Blighted and abandoned? Hardly.
If the right to your property ends at the moment someone else can show there is a more valuable use for that property, then few people have a right to property at all.