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Authorities work to clear blighted properties, but struggle to find owners
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- When driving through Johnstown, you don't have to look far to find a vacant, run down, or unlivable property. They're in every neighborhood, on just about every street. They're unsightly, sometimes hazardous, and one of the reasons the city's appearance is often criticized.
In the city alone, officials tell 6 News there are 1,600 vacant properties, nearly 900 of which are condemnable and should be torn down. But the city doesn't have the money to do that, and as 6 News reporter Maria Miller found out, the problem comes down to much more than the cost of demolition.
Miller has been meeting with code enforcement officers for a couple months. They took her around the city, pointed out some of the biggest problem properties and explained their challenges.
Sam Barber and Leroy Palov are the code enforcement officers for the City of Johnstown. Their job is to issue violations and citations for everything from overgrown grass to buildings that are falling apart. They're also the ones who hear the complaints.
"It's very difficult. You understand their frustrations and you sympathize with them," said Barber. "We want to tear this stuff down just as much as anyone else wants to tear it down because we want to see our city come back to life."
So why isn't the city doing more? The answer may surprise you. It comes down to a lot more than just the cost of demolition.
"(We) can't find the owner, (we) cannot find them anywhere," said Palov.
A building in the West End that one time was home to a popular comic book store has become an eyesore. The city would like to tear it down, but officials can't find the owner.
"He pretty much vanished," said Barber. "We just got a tip he was there. There's no address."
It's a similar situation for another building in the heart of downtown that's sat empty for 15 years.
"We can't find the owner. We don't know where the owner of the property even is," said Palov. "We've heard rumors he's in protective custody, then we heard he was in jail, so no one knows exactly where he is at the present."
Another home 6 News visited in the West End doesn't look as bad as the others, but the owners are facing thousands of dollars in fines and it's up to Constable Fran Yuras to find them and bring them to court.
"They've got violations for sanitation, exterior property maintenance and being clean, safe and sanitary," said Yuras.
But as 6 News quickly found out, the owner of the property won't be coming forward anytime soon. A man who lives inside came out during an interview with Yuras and told 6 News he doesn't have a landlord, in fact, he said he doesn't pay rent. That's because he said the owners moved to Florida a couple of years ago and never looked back.
"She couldn't make it up here to give us a legal binding lease for a rent to own, then there's no way she's going to be able to come up and afford an eviction notice," said the man. "So, I wasn't too worried about that."
If the owner were to come back to town and the city found out, the owner would be held responsible, possibly detained and be summoned to court.
"I will attempt to locate them in Florida, but as the gentleman said, they're not coming up here," said Yuras. "We're going to have one circus trying to get this solved and this is typical of what we're running into."
Tracking down the owners who've let their properties fall apart is one thing, but according to the codes department, there are hundreds of properties in the city with owners who have never even been to Johnstown.
"They come here or go on the Internet or the paper or however they do it and they never step foot in Johnstown," said Barber. "Some of the properties we see that are bought haven't been lived in for years and they buy them for pennies on the dollar."
"They use them as collateral to buy properties elsewhere and they just come back in here and say, 'We're done,' that's it, 'We don't want it,'" said Palov. "Then they just sit here and it becomes our responsibility. They refuse to pay the taxes. They just abandon the property, just leave it and that's it and then it goes to tax sales, sheriff sales, upset sales."
6 News obtained a 70-page packet from the county's tax claim office that includes 900 properties in the City of Johnstown alone that went unsold at the latest county upset sale. All 900 properties combined owe more than $8 million in back taxes to the county.
"When I opened this, I sat down and I was floored," said Lindy Yutzy, looking through the packet. "Millions of dollars is owed to Cambria County and the City of Johnstown."
Yutzy lives in the West End. She's not an elected official, she doesn't work for the city, but she is concerned about her neighborhoods.
"For me, this is my grandkids future. This could be new streets, new curbs, better schools," said Yutzy. "I don't think a lot of people realize these properties are here and they're waiting for someone to buy."
But people who live in the area know that most of the properties listed are not in the best shape and have been left for the city to care for.
"Our hands are tied when we have to come to the properties. We only have 'X' number of dollars to spend and you have to go through legal procedures," said Palov. "People don't realize how these people just disappear."
"It's an endless cycle that you can't win because we don't have the legal teeth to do anything with these people because they're out of state," said Yuras. "The only way that's going to stop this is to hit their pocketbooks, either putting a lien against them personally, a garnishment on their wages, income tax or whatever to pay for this. These people are unfortunately laughing at us. Many of them are sitting out laughing at us."