Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

“Light at the End of the Tunnel:” city to buy first sinkhole homes next week

Homes on South 14th street have been uninhabitable since a sinkhole erupted in March 2014.

It’s been years coming, but homeowners along a sinkhole-ravaged street in south Harrisburg are about to be relieved of their damaged and destroyed properties.

The city is preparing to purchase 52 homes on the 1400 block of S. 14th Street that were rendered uninhabitable when a sinkhole erupted there in 2014. The first closings are tentatively scheduled for next week, according to Jackie Parker, director of Community and Economic Development, and the city hopes to conclude all the sales by the end of the year.

Parker said that the homes are being appraised at their “pre-event” value, meaning the appraisers will not take the sinkhole into consideration. Certified appraisers hired by the city have assessed home values ranging from $32,000 to $59,000 since they began appraisals 18 months ago, she said.

According to Parker, homeowners have the right to bring in a certified appraiser to challenge the value suggested by the city; to her knowledge, however, no homeowner has done so.

The city has obtained $4.7 million in funding from a variety of sources, including FEMA (though the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency), HUD’s Department of Community and Economic Development, and state Community Development Block Grant funding. Dauphin County contributed an additional $1 million.

All of the money that the city has obtained so far will cover acquisitions and relocations for tenants. Though the city is required to provide benefits to those tenants under state rental law, Parker said that it cannot reimburse homeowners for costs they incurred for emergency or short-term housing. Twenty-six of the properties slated for purchase are rentals.

A small amount of funding will be used to help with demolition. The city plans to turn the area into a green space, but still must secure funding for debris removal and landscaping.

The sinkhole on 14th street ravaged road pavement, sidewalks and lawns when it opened in March 2014, likely due to heavy rains during Hurricane Lee.

Ten homes were condemned, forcing residents to relocate immediately, and other residents moved out gradually as they secured temporary housing.

The city, county and school board have waived property taxes for all of the lots going back to 2014. Since the parcels are virtually worthless, selling to the city is the only path of recourse for most owners. But Parker said that participating in the program is strictly voluntary.

“Right up until the closing, the homeowner can say they do not want to participate,” Parker said. “They do not have to sell.”

The city had to negotiate individual deals with every property owner, and Parker said that each one is accompanied by a lengthy paper trail.
The city must abide by federal guidelines for buying damaged property, conduct title searches for each lot, and take into consideration any problems with deeds, mortgages or outstanding liens.

Parker said that city officials and homeowners alike are happy to see the long process nearing its end.

“Residents have been very patient and great to work with,” Parker said. “Hopefully they see light at the end of the tunnel.”

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