By Marlee Gallagher
In 2014 I went to a neighbor’s house for a community meeting and met graduate student, Ken Chu, along with a group of other Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) students, both graduate and undergraduate. They were all enrolled in a class focused on the intersection of design and policy and were designing a project to tackle blight in and around Pittsburgh. They focused on Wilkinsburg, a borough just east of Pittsburgh, not only because of the vast amount of blight and vacancy there—approximately 19 percent of Wilkinsburg’s parcels are vacant—but also because of the community’s rich history and dedicated residents.
Chu and the other students were most interested in how Wilkinsburg residents address blight and vacancy in their neighborhood. What are the available tools and resources? How accessible are they? Where are the gaps? Following the meeting, I introduced the students with the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC) so they could learn more about the programs and resources available to residents and others interested in acquiring and rehabilitating vacant structures in Wilkinsburg.
Vacant Home Tours
After learning more about these tools, the students wanted to develop an activity to address the gap between the existing tools and the general awareness and use of them. One of the projects they came up with was the Vacant Home Tour concept. The purposes of the tours were to (1) engage residents and use the art of storytelling to reframe the issue of blight and (2) connect people interested in acquiring and rehabilitating vacant properties to available resources. The following semester, the WCDC reconnected with Chu to actually bring the tour to Wilkinsburg as part of his capstone project. The first tour took place in May 2015 and the second in May 2016.
Community engagement was key to hosting successful Vacant Home Tours. During the months leading up to them, we held public meetings to get input from community members about which vacant properties should be included, how the tour should be mapped out, and which residents should serve as guides for each of the selected properties. We also gathered feedback and information through door-to-door canvassing, yard signs, social media, community newsletters, and emails. Though Wilkinsburg has close to 800 vacant parcels, residents narrowed down the list to just five properties in 2015 (all homes) and six in 2016 (five homes and one commercial property). This helped keep the tours manageable enough for a mostly volunteer committee and easy to navigate for participants.
Once they had been selected, residents researched each property’s history and gathered information about the people who had lived and/or worked in it. Their research tools included the Allegheny County Real Estate Website and the Department of Real Estate in Pittsburgh; social media; historical texts from the Wilkinsburg library and archives; Wilkinsburg Historical Society; long-time residents, neighbors, and past or current owners of the houses; Ancestry.com; yard signs; and the Vacant Home Tour website.
Social media had a surprisingly huge impact on the project. Through our Facebook and Twitter pages, we were able to collect contacts, names, stories, and feedback for the tours. We also used social media for event outreach and promotion. More than 30,000 people from around the world were engaged on our Facebook page in 2015 and more than 80,000 in 2016.
After collecting all of the research and stories, tour guides put the information together in a timeline that detailed each house’s history and highlighted any interesting stories, photos, and important people who had lived in the house or its vicinity. On the day of each tour, guides presented the information and answered questions.
The Program’s Impact
The 2015 and 2016 Vacant Home Tours brought more than 1,200 people to Wilkinsburg to get to know the community, meet neighbors, and learn to acquire and rehab vacant properties. Both tours resulted in more than 20 positive press stories about the Wilkinsburg community. Coverage came from both local news sources—including the local NPR station, newspapers, and magazines—and national outlets, including Next City, the Center for Community Progress, Governing magazine, and more.
In both years, tour participants reported that the top reason for attending the tour was an interest in Wilkinsburg and its history; the second most popular reason was an interest in actually acquiring a vacant home or building in Wilkinsburg. Eighty-six percent of 2016 attendees had not attended the previous tour.
In addition to the tours, the acquisition and financing workshops, which ran concurrently, engaged 210 people. Through the workshops, individuals learned how to (1) acquire a vacant property and (2) finance its rehab. The 2016 workshops focused more exclusively on resources for financing and rehabilitation since the 2015 workshops had focused largely on acquisition. For these workshops, we partnered with Allegheny County; two banks—WesBanco and PrimeLenders; housing agencies, including the Pittsburgh Housing Development Association; and assistance agencies, including the Urban League and Design Center.
Following the 2015 tour, Allegheny County reported 23 Vacant Property Recovery Program (VPRP) applications. Five vacant Wilkinsburg properties were conveyed in 2015 and two in 2016. One couple, who put a bid on a house along the tour route the day after the 2015 event, has since purchased the property. They were featured on our 2016 House & Garden Tour. Additionally, the commercial property featured on the 2016 tour is currently in the process of being acquired by a local business owner.
Following the 2016 tour, WesBanco and PrimeLenders both saw increases in vacant property inquiries, and PrimeLenders began working directly with four individuals who had attended the workshops. Our WesBanco contact told us, “I have received numerous calls from folks who were at the [Vacant Home Tour] or had heard about the tour. For a newer bank on the scene, it has been extremely valuable for us to be recognized and to get our brand name circulating in the neighborhoods. Tie that into our great mortgage lending products, especially Purchase/Rehab and New Construction, it’s a big win for us.”
Since the 2016 tour, the WCDC has hired a vacant property coordinator to focus exclusively on vacant property acquisition, expand the WCDC’s housing and vacant property programs, and continue to help people through the process of acquiring and rehabilitating vacant property in Wilkinsburg. Though we will be taking a break from the tour this spring, we look forward to organizing more workshops and bringing the event back in future years.
Marlee Gallagher is the communications and outreach coordinator for the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation.#HistoricPropertiesRedevelopmentProgram #development #RealEstate #community