For years, Harrisburg’s fight against blighted homes has looked something like a game of Whack-a-Mole.
As soon as codes officers demolished one abandoned property, they’d be alerted to a different structure on the brink of collapse. A city-wide roster with hundreds of condemned and abandoned properties never seemed to get any shorter.
That changed in 2018.
Harrisburg demolished a record-breaking 42 properties this year, according to codes administrator David Patton, and is on track to raze two more before the end of December.
Combined with an uptick of private development projects this year, Harrisburg’s demolition rate has helped the city significantly reduce its stock of condemned housing, Patton said.
“We’re getting to a point where we see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We’ve reached a threshold where things are looking extremely good for the city.”
The codes bureau entered the year with more resources than ever for demolitions, thanks to a $250,000 allocation in the city’s 2018 budget. It also got $120,000 for emergency demolitions in June from the Community Development Block Grant fund.
The funds allowed Patton to double his in-house demolition capacity from the previous year, when crews tore down 24 buildings.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse pledged to keep the demolition budget steady in the new year. While the cost of demolition varies for each property, Patton hopes to match or exceed his demolition rate in the new year.
He’s already compiled a list of 41 priority properties.
Decades of suburbanization and migration out of the city left Harrisburg with more than 4,000 vacant residential, commercial and industrial structures, according to census data. The worst ones garner codes citations and condemnation orders, often after concerned neighbors lodge complaints with the codes bureau.
Patton said the city had as many as 700 condemned properties—those deemed unfit for human habitation—just a few years ago. Today, the tally stands at 388.
Some condemned properties can be saved with costly renovations. For instance, the Swallow Mansion on N. 6th Street, which been condemned since 2010, recently attracted the interest of a private developer who expects to spend up to $400,000 restoring it.
But the longer a property languishes, the more expensive its renovation becomes. Unsound structures are also liable to collapse or catch fire. It’s these properties that city officials target in their demolition program.
Codes officers inspect buildings daily and use a ranking system to determine which ones should be demolished, Patton said.
“Triage is very difficult because a lot of them are in equal levels of deterioration,” Patton said. “But I have an instinct when I look at certain properties. If we have to do something very quickly, we get it on the roster.”
Extreme weather or other emergencies can alter demolition priorities. Even so, Patton is trying to target this year’s efforts on areas with “extreme distress,” such as S. 18th Street, where seven properties are marked for demolition.
That’s good news to Gary Lenker, president of Tri-County Housing Development Corp., who said that a targeted strategy is the best approach to fighting blight.
“From a development standpoint, focusing on a block-by-block approach gets the most bang for your buck,” Lenker said. “You see the biggest results in a quicker fashion.”
Tri-County didn’t demolish any buildings in 2018, Lenker said, but did rehabilitate four homes on Hummel Street as part of the MulDer Square revitalization project. It has just one demolition planned for 2019.
Lenker said that the bureaucratic hurdles of demolition are often too cumbersome for a small nonprofit organization.
For each house the city demolishes, Patton has to get a “declaration of site emergency” from the mayor, ask utility companies to terminate service, and secure permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
He also has to obtain state clearances for properties with historical significance.
One such property is among Patton’s 2019 demolition priorities: the Biedelman House at 1225 Market St., which formerly served as the residence of the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor.
Patton also included the property on last year’s demolition list, in hopes it would pique the attention of preservationists and developers.
Though some prospective buyers visited the property this year, Patton doesn’t think any are prepared to salvage it.
The hulking building on the corner of Market and Evergreen streets has sat vacant for at least two decades. It now needs a new roof and an internal gut renovation.
“I had to make that effort to preserve it, but the last preservation estimate was $1 million,” Patton said. “Everything inside has deteriorated.”
Tearing down the Biedelman House could cost as much as $70,000, he said.
An array of factors affects the cost of a demolition, including the property’s location and material composition.
A demolition on a one-way street, for instance, may carry a high price tag if crews can’t park equipment outside.
Row home demolitions can also be costly. Adjacent properties have to be sealed off with new party walls, which are often more expensive than the demolition itself, Patton said.
Patton uses a combination of in-house and contracted labor to complete demolitions. City codes officers can easily demolish a freestanding property themselves for about $6,000, according to Patton.
The same project could cost $20,000 when done by a contractor.
Patton usually bids out row home demolitions, which can run up to $30,000 per home once crews construct party walls.
The home was sandwiched between two occupied homes, Patton said. They each needed new stucco siding once the condemned property was carved out.
Patton said that he was sad to see the distinctive structure reduced to dust. But, as with many historic homes left abandoned for decades, he believed that there wasn’t an alternative.
“A lot of these areas do have unique architectural features, but the properties are just way past sell-by date,” Patton said. “There’s no administering first aid on these, and the only recourse is to demo.”