Collier’s Weekly: Pittsburgh Needs a Real Plan for Abandoned Houses

Many city neighborhoods have a surfeit of abandoned homes. It’s long past time that the city develop an actual plan for rehabilitating them — affordably.


For about a decade now, I’ve lived atop or near the part of the city collectively (if not creatively) dubbed the Hilltop. For those who have never crossed to the south side of the Mon, you may have noticed a large mountain cuddling up to Downtown; on it are neighborhoods including Mount Washington, the South Side Slopes, Allentown and a dozen others.

There’s a funny thing about the houses around these neighborhoods: on any given block, they can be any age and in any condition. There are streets where a pattern repeats: a beautiful, newly renovated house sits next to an old but sturdy Pittsburgh home — right beside an abandoned building.

Over and over, down the street: Renovated house, regular house, empty house. Manicured yard, slightly shaggy grass, weeds and garbage.

In many cases, the abandoned houses aren’t merely sitting empty, waiting for a new buyer or tenant; they’re condemned, as clearly indicated by the blue poster affixed to the front door. Having passed by dozens of these buildings on dog walks and drives, I’ve never actually seen one demolished or rehabilitated — the condemnation is less a notice of a building’s fate as it is a sign that the property now belongs to housing-stock purgatory.

This weekend, the Post-Gazette analyzed recent census data, noting two facts about the city’s housing situation: Our buildings are getting older, and the cost of living in them is rising. The median year of origin for a Pittsburgh structure is 1941, one of the oldest such marks in the country (the average is 1981). Despite the age of these houses, we’re paying more to live in them; the average housing cost in the city was $985 in 2021 and $1,096 in 2022, an increase of more than $100 in just a year.

Meanwhile, 13,000 houses — or 14 properties for every single person experiencing homelessness in Allegheny County, to add a point of comparison — sit as mostly untended city property. The reasons the city owns such a massive collection of problem property (and does little with it) are complicated; as another Post-Gazette investigation uncovered, a prime problem is the city’s habit of asking exorbitant and unrealistic prices for the houses it owns.

I’m not a city planner or a policy expert, but it doesn’t take one to see this: There’s gotta be a better solution for 13,000 houses.

There has to be a way to get those houses to builders who will agree to rehabilitate them and make them available for affordable housing, and there has to be a way to make that process financially sound. Many cities offer such properties for little or nothing to those who would responsibly shepherd them back to health; here, we ask for prices no one would be willing to pay, then let buildings decay.

It’s a bureaucratic mess, I’m sure, but not one we’re incapable of overcoming. There are certainly enough minds in city government to come up with a plan that can be enacted quickly — not one of those five-year plans that never materializes, but something that can start bringing down the cost of living and the number of abandoned buildings immediately.

We can’t let the opposing forces of bickering and inaction prevent us from ever getting anything done. Let’s be the neighbors we’re supposed to be — and clean up our neighborhoods in the process.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly