9 Mar

Over the past few weeks, the first conservatorship cases within the City of Pittsburgh have been completed. In January 2017, more than forty-five cases were pending in the Pittsburgh court system. Filed by individuals and nonprofits from the West End to the North Side and the East End, cases addressed properties from vacant lots and abandoned homes to the former St. Peter and Paul Church building. In February and March, the first completed conservatorship properties were sold to end-users, marking the end of court cases originally filed as early as 2014.

On February 16, 2017, PCRG staff were present at the closing of a conservatorship petition filed by Renee Rosensteel and Bill O’Driscoll, a married couple living in a rehabbed house in the neighborhood of Manchester. Rosensteel and O’Driscoll originally filed the case after speaking with Bethany Davidson, then a PCRG staff member, about the property behind their home. The house behind their home was abandoned and decaying, unsecured to the public, and had bricks falling near their cars. The couple also discovered evidence of drug use and multiple kinds of bullets on the propert. “We were really frustrated with it, and we wanted to make it not a problem anymore,” Rosensteel said. Other methods of securing the property were considered, but were unlikely to work due to the house’s tangled title, a common problem with vacant and abandoned houses in Pittsburgh.

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Rosensteel and O’Driscoll faced a number of obstacles, including both the usual problems faced renovating an older house as well as obstacles unique to conservatorship. These included pushback from the City of Pittsburgh legal department regarding forgiveness of back taxes, financing challenges, the expense of procuring insurance, and their status as among the first to pioneer a new legal process in Pittsburgh. Without conservatorship, Rosensteel said, it was “pretty obvious that [the house] would fall into a degree of disrepair that it would have to be torn down.” While they knew that since the process hadn’t been tested there would be “bumps and hiccups along the way,” the couple did not expect to spend as much time and money as they did. Rosensteel described conservatorship as “not for the faint of heart”, but worth it.

Images: Renee Rosensteel

Images: Renee Rosensteel

With the assistance of Manchester Citizens Corporation, their attorney Keirsten Lane of DeMarco & Negle, and many others, Rosensteel and O’Driscoll were finally awarded the house they had put so much time and effort into securing and renovating. Once the deed is finalized and renovations are complete, the couple plan to convert the first floor into an AirB&B and rent the second floor as an apartment.

PCRG staff have advocated for conservatorship legislation at the state level. PCRG staff also encouraged homeowners from Sheraden to submit the first two conservatorship cases filed in Pittsburgh. On behalf of PCRG, residents, and other nonprofit corporations, attorney Wayne Cobb has filed a large number of cases; some cases have already closed, and many more are expected to close in the near future. With the completion of these initial cases, Pittsburgh is ready to move on to the next step.

Conservatorship has the potential to be an important tool for securing and renovating vacant and abandoned properties. In Pittsburgh, conservators currently face obstacles getting information about the process. Until February, no cases had closed in the Pittsburgh municipal courts. While excellent guides to the law are available from the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania and Regional Housing Legal Services, both were published before any cases had closed. One of PCRG’s top priorities in 2017 will be better enabling community groups and residents to pursue conservatorship by sharing case studies of conservators, lessons learned, and best practices going forward. Stay tuned for more about this project!

Sarah Slater

Program Coordinator, Land Use at Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group
Having grown up in the Pittsburgh area, Sarah left to study Business Administration and International Development at Houghton College, located in rural Western NY. She is thrilled to be back in the City and is eager to work with PCRG members to foster the growth of the region. Sarah is a passionate cook and loves exploring the multitude of ethnic grocery stores and farmers' markets that Pittsburgh has to offer.