With more than 20,000 vacant parcels citywide, about a third of them owned by the city or its Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Pittsburgh is experimenting with a new way to keep empty lots maintained. According to Trib Live, the URA will now farm out maintenance of some of its 1,500 vacant properties to small companies and nonprofits based in the surrounding neighborhoods.
In July, seven organizations won URA bids totaling $250,000 to maintain 50 to 70 lots apiece for one year in the Hill District, Hazelwood, Homewood and Larimar neighborhoods. The work, which begins in September, will include mowing at least every six months and sidewalk snow removal in winter.
Ken Acklin, chairman of the URA board and Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff, said not only will the arrangement provide regular maintenance to blighted lots, but it will economically stimulate depressed neighborhoods by providing jobs for unemployed residents and helping small companies to grow. The Hill District-based Amani Christian Community Development Corporation, for example, won one of the bids. Executive Director Lee Walls told Trib Live he will employ nine residents.
“We hope it will improve their economic position, so they can move onto something more career-oriented,” he said. “It’s also for the Hill District community. We certainly want to enhance the image.”
The companies will use an online tracking system to chart their progress in real-time, including by uploading before-and-after photographs. That information will be available to the public too.
If the new system results in improved maintenance, it should be a welcome change for residents. One woman interviewed by Trib Live, who lives across from URA-owned lots in Homewood, said, “you can kill somebody and put a body over there, and nobody would ever find it because they never cut it. … The city wants to cite you if you don’t keep your yard the way they want you to keep it, and look how they take care of their property.”
Pittsburgh’s Planning Department estimated in 2014 that the city spends about $5.5 million annually on vacant land, including on maintenance and legal and code enforcement, and the cost has likely increased since then. If the outsourced maintenance program is successful, officials plan to expand in phases to encompass about 5,400 lots owned by the city.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.