Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Harrisburg Begins Buying Sinkhole-Affected Houses; Some Residents Unprepared to Leave.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse today announced the first purchase of sinkhole-affected houses along S. 14th Street.

More than 3½ years after a sinkhole erupted on a residential block of S. 14th Street, Harrisburg has started to relieve homeowners of their worthless properties, though some residents say that they still have nowhere to move.

By the end of the day on Tuesday, Harrisburg will own seven of the 52 homes on the block, Mayor Eric Papenfuse announced at a press conference held today on the sinkhole-ravaged street. Ten homes are scheduled for closings this week, and the city is on track to purchase all 52 affected properties by Dec. 31.

“It’s been a very complicated and drawn-out process,” Papenfuse said.

He reported that the purchasing program is the first of its kind in the nation, since sinkhole events are not usually covered by natural disaster relief dollars.

“Today, we are celebrating that this final phase is beginning,” he said.

A few years ago, the situation along S. 14th Street seemed dire. However, the city was able to secure about $4.7 million in federal and state disaster relief funding to purchase all the homes at their pre-sinkhole market value.

Despite today’s announcement, some residents said that they aren’t prepared to move by year-end. Ronald Cook came out of his S. 14th Street house when he saw camera crews setting up for Tuesday’s press conference. That was when he learned about the city’s Dec. 31 deadline for closings, he said.

“I’m not ready to move,” Cook said. “We’ve got nowhere to go.”

He claims that the sale of his house has been delayed because it needs a water quality test, which he said was scheduled for last week but postponed.

Ronald Cook stands outside his house on S. 14th Street.

Papenfuse said on Tuesday that the city was connecting displaced homeowners with realtors, but Cook said he hasn’t gotten that assistance. He has lived in his home on S. 14th Street for 18 years in a rent-to-own arrangement. He said he’d rather buy a new home than rent, but fears that poor credit will limit his options.

“I don’t know what I can do,” he said.

Willie Nix lives in a rental property on S. 14th Street. As a tenant, he is entitled to relocation assistance from federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding. He said he’s still waiting on a housing reassignment.

Papenfuse and Jackie Parker, director of the city’s Department of Community Economic Development, said that the city has been in continual contact with S. 14th street residents ever since the sinkhole opened in 2014.

Parker also said that the Dec. 31 closing deadline was negotiable, since each property sale is highly individual. The grants funding the home purchases technically expire on Dec. 31, but Parker said that homeowners do have the opportunity to extend.

“Nobody has to move by any particular time,” Parker said. “Every property owner has a unique situation and unique closing opportunity and paperwork. No two are the same.”

Almost $1 million of the funding will be used to relocate tenants, since 26 of the properties were rental units.

Parker said that each home purchase and relocation is governed by strict guidelines, and the city brought on consulting firms to handle property closings and tenant relocation. Under CDBG guidelines, relocation specialists can help tenants identify safe, fair-value housing and obtain reimbursement for moving costs, security deposits and rental application fees.

The 52 homes will eventually be demolished. Since the city cannot build on the site, it will allow the entire block to become a community green space, Papenfuse said.

Correction: this story was edited to clarify Ronald Cook’s home ownership status. Cook is not documented owner of 1408 S. 14th street, but entered a rent-to-own agreement with the property owner when he moved into the house 18 years ago.

Continue Reading