October 8, 2013 | Vol. 74 No. 11

Some Mt. Washington residents have a different view of the neighborhood

Raymond Wehring, who has lived on Mount Washington for 50 years, remembers when Norton Street was vibrant and full of neighbors.

Chris Squier
Raymond Wehring looks over the Mt. Washington neighborhood where he has lived for more than 50 years. Six nearby homes have been abandoned on Norton Street.

Now surrounded by empty houses instead, Mr. Wehring wants nothing more than to leave and take his two grandchildren with him.

“If I won the Powerball, I’d buy all these … houses and tear them all down,” Mr. Wehring said, gesturing to a vacant property across from his home, which he said has stood empty for years.

With high vacancy rates and a shrinking population in the Hilltop communities south of Pittsburgh’s Downtown, some houses in Mount Washington have seen better days. Revitalization efforts are in the works through a community non-profit organization, the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation (MWCDC), but residents said they are still affected by the day-to-day woes of living near blighted properties.

Out of 5,394 residential addresses in Mount Washington, 757 were considered vacant by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the United States Postal Service in 2012. More than 80 percent were unoccupied for more than a year.

The study found that 177 homes were considered vacant and uninhabitable.

Jason Kambitsis, executive director of the MWCDC, said there is a problem in select parts of Mount Washington.

“Really in Mount Washington it’s portioned to certain pockets of the community where its people who have moved on, or the housing stock wasn’t great, or people can’t keep up with their homes,” Mr. Kambitsis said. “It’s not rampant throughout the community, but we keep an eye on it and try to deter it anyway we can.”

Further away from Grandview Avenue, with its majestic overlooks of the city and where property value is high, property becomes cheaper and it falls more quickly into disrepair, Mr. Kambitsis said.

A two-bedroom condominium on Grandview Avenue is listed on Zillow, a real estate website, for around $400,000, while a two-bedroom property on Norton Street, blocks away on the back side of the neighborhood, costs around $60,000.

The houses are only a five minute drive apart.

“There are back portions of the community that people do not know about that essentially over time, may not have gotten all the attention from real estate developers and owner-occupants so over time they fall into disrepair,” Mr. Kambitsis said.

Boarded up door frames, overgrown porches and paper notices taped to entryways mark several houses as vacant. Norton Street is in one of those “pockets.”

A few houses down from Mr. Wehring, 85-year-old Verna L. Johnson said she feels unsatisfied too. Bushes from a neighboring abandoned property have crept their way over a six-foot fence and into Johnson’s well-tended yard. They aggravate her allergies.

She has seen rats scurrying out from the overgrown yard next door, a property she said has been empty for at least two years.

“That’s why I don’t chase these cats away,” Ms. Johnson said, gesturing to the menagerie of strays gathered by her feet on her porch.

In order to prevent situations like the one on Norton Street, the MWCDC is taking a preventative stance by taking notice of properties that have fallen into foreclosure or that have become tax delinquent.

“We’re actively working to intervene in those properties in those specific areas so they don’t fall into disrepair anymore,” Mr. Kambitsis said. “We’re trying to get into a position where we can get into it in the beginning.”

The MWCDC goes through the community looking for houses that have fallen into disrepair by checking for notices posted on doors or visible signs a property was uninhabited for a while, Mr. Kambitsis said.

“We’d rather have people living in houses, rather than just vacant lots,” Mr. Kambitsis said.

He said neighborhood residents seek out the MWCDC for help with blighted properties over private developers because they are “community-minded.”

A vacant lot is a good alternative for Mr. Wehring.

“If no one is going to live here, why doesn’t the city just tear them all down?” Mr. Wehring said.

After seeing kids hanging out in a neighboring vacant house drinking, the Norton Street resident got tired of watching them break beer bottles and had the city board up the doors and windows.

“It’s just a shame how Mount Washington has gone downhill,” he said.

Accustomed to navigating the city through the public transportation readily available in Mount Washington all his life, only one thing stands between Mr. Wehring and his exodus from his home: a driver’s license.

“Once that happens, I’m out of here,” Mr. Wehring said.

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