Property Rights

They Said This Law Would Fix Blighted Neighborhoods. Instead It’s Being Used to Steal People’s Homes

And the Pennsylvania state lawmaker who wrote the law is now the judge who hears a lot of the cases.

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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.

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11 responses to “They Said This Law Would Fix Blighted Neighborhoods. Instead It’s Being Used to Steal People’s Homes

  1. The story calls to mind the skewed quasi-judicial system that the City of Philadelphia used to use to adjudicate civil asset forfeiture cases…

    You hear that, PA? There’s nothing lower than being compared to Filthacrapia.

    1. Could be a good basis for a future ‘it’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ episode. Where the gang seeks conservatorship over some property. Maybe The Lawyer is involved, and Charlie can once again invoke Bird Law.

  2. I’d think that would be an open-and-shut case for recusing himself. How can that not be a conflict of interest?

  3. But…but…but..the State MUSt have this power! How else will it be able to bring about the perfect Planned Society!

    Not that States that have the power, and a while lot more besides, have had any notable success on that front.

  4. 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.”

    O’ yeah, so where’s the permits for the work and more importantly our cut? Oh you didn’t get them well here is a 10K bill and we are still going to take your house.

  5. You didn’t build that – – – – – –

  6. This story brings back the question that always nags at me with egregious government abuse… “where are all of the Charles Bronson characters?”

    You’d think that at some point they’d steal the wrong guy’s house and we’d end up with a body count. But it just doesn’t seem to happen.

    The couple from the asset forfeiture case written about earlier today, for example. The government took all their money, destroyed their reputation, cost them their house and generally wrecked their lives, all under the fig-leaf excuse of a misdemeanor pot possession charge that is possibly false.. The guy was apparently an avid gun collector too, per the items stolen by the state….. yet no body count.

    I’m thinking that human nature may not be what we suppose it is. Definitely what Hollywood thinks it is.

    1. Maybe even guys with terminal illnesses and nothing to lose don’t want to go out in a way that will forever taint the family name?

    2. If someone pulled this with me, I would consider it very likely a couple of Hell’s Angels would visit the would be conservators one night and discuss the issue, aggressively.

      When it come to this shit, don’t play their game. Play your own.

  7. Oh, good grief!
    We all know cronyism is more important than something as someone’s home.

  8. I’m pretty sure property taxes prove that few people have a right to property at all.

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