Developing and Implementing Property Remediation Strategies in Urban and Rural Communities in the Lehigh Valley: A Case Study of Bethlehem and Northampton County, Pennsylvania

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Photography of the Lehigh Valley, with trees in the foreground and a small city in the background.

This is an excerpt of Chapter 6 of Tackling Vacancy and Abandonment: Strategies and Impacts After the Great Recession, jointly produced by the Center for Community Progress, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. It has been lightly edited and condensed for the web. In this chapter, Reinvestment Fund’s Emily Dowdall and Ira Goldstein discuss vacant property remediation and prevention plans in the Leigh Valley as a case study of data-driven community development. Click here to download the full chapter and read more insights on tackling vacancy and abandonment from the nation’s leading experts.

Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley stretches across two counties in eastern Pennsylvania, sitting approximately 50 miles north of Philadelphia and 80 miles west of New York City. It is remarkably varied in terms of community characteristics and the built environment. Although the region has made a generally successful transition to a more diversified economy over time, seeing population growth and sustaining a higher median income than the Commonwealth in recent years, there are pockets of decline and disinvestment and instances of highly visible properties in acute disrepair —which state and local laws define as “blighted”—that municipalities have struggled to address.

Reinvestment Fund conducted Market Value Analyses for the City of Bethlehem (2018) and Northampton County (2019) to support data-driven blight prevention and remediation plans. The plan for Bethlehem, which straddles both Northampton and Lehigh Counties, won the 2018 Lehigh Valley Award for Plan or Policy. The plan focused on action steps and funding approaches that could be taken by local government entities and partners. Although implementing the recommendations has not been without difficulty, the city had the organizational infrastructure, data collection expectations, and working relationships in place to do so.

Northampton’s countywide plan brought together 38 municipalities ranging from boroughs with only part-time staff, to Bethlehem and Easton, which each have their own Redevelopment Authority with the power to obtain and condemn properties through eminent domain. County officials were particularly concerned with small boroughs (with populations of approximately 500 to 5,000) located in rural areas, where the administrative and financial capacity to address blight and to invest in data collection and analysis has been more limited. The resulting plan thus included tools and strategies that could be applied in very different local circumstances and considerations for how the county could support small municipalities’ efforts.

Bethlehem has a population of approximately 75,000, making it the seventh largest city in Pennsylvania.  Blight has not been an overwhelming issue. Based on field surveys conducted by Redevelopment Authority staff, less than 1 percent of properties qualified as meeting one or more of the five conditions delineated in the city ordinance that defines blight. Twenty-nine properties were officially designated as blighted through the Blighted Property Review Committee process. Another eighteen were queued for certification. Although not pervasive, the presence of large, vacant commercial and industrial properties, along with pockets of distressed residential properties, had become major concerns for stakeholders.

In 2017, the City of Bethlehem enlisted Reinvestment Fund and its partners Consulting and Atria Planning in the creation of a data-driven plan, dubbed the Bethlehem Blight Betterment Infinitive, or B3. The city had many assets going into the initiative, including the federal funding sources of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOME program, professional code enforcement staff, and powers of eminent domain through its Redevelopment Authority. The city did not have electronic data collection systems or procedures in place to comprehensively review property records to guide enforcement and investment.

Certified Blighted Properties and Surveyed Properties Meeting Legal Blight Criteria in Bethlehem (as of April 2018)
Source: Bethlehem Blight Betterment Initiative Action Plan, 2018

The effort began with a review of the city’s data on blighted properties. As seen in the above image, about three-quarters of certified blighted properties were located around Lehigh University in Bethlehem’s South Side. Many distressed commercial properties on the edges of the downtown were either certified blighted or found to meet the legal standard to be considered blighted, and stakeholders saw them as negatively affecting adjacent residential areas.

In contrast to the clustering of blight, the city’s investment activities had been more dispersed, largely determined by the legal and community development tools available and opportunities or pressing concerns related to specific properties. According to local stakeholders, prior to B3 the notable impediments to addressing blight, although by no means all of the challenges, were:

  • A cumbersome process for certifying a property as blighted, requiring proceedings before the Blighted Property Review Committee (BPRC), the Planning Commission, and the Redevelopment Authority;
  • Obsolete data management systems to record and track code inspections;
  • The reluctance of county magistrates to support code enforcement through guilty findings or penalty amounts sufficient to motivate compliance—even when an owner was believed to have sufficient financial resources to remediate a property’s condition;
  • Market conditions that are not supportive of investment in some locations

Both the city and the countywide plans and efforts to implement them illustrate how data can bring stakeholders together around a shared understanding of current conditions and goals, transform difficult conversations into productive working sessions, help municipal staff achieve results, and maintain momentum for blight management.

In Bethlehem and Northampton County, officials could point to several successes and were optimistic about realizing additional goals. Rental inspections became law in Bethlehem, and the Borough of Bangor partnered with Northampton County to redevelop a set of properties from the tax repository into affordable housing. However, many of the same challenges persisted: limited funds and staff capacity, particularly in the boroughs; the slowness of conducting needed demolition activity in; and municipalities facing unpredictable outcomes with local magistrates.

Looking forward, Bethlehem and Northampton County want to establish a loan fund for property repair for owners in need of financial assistance to complete required work. The city and county both saw such a fund as beyond their own administrative capacity, and stakeholders said that it would probably need to be operated by a local community development financial institution. A cultural shift is already under way in Bethlehem in getting elected officials and the private and nonprofit sectors on board with prioritizing blight management. Further in the future, a county land bank or redevelopment authority could be considered.  

Additionally, the task force recognized that maintaining current data on blight is instrumental to sustained blight management. An annual survey can ask municipalities to submit updated lists of blighted and remediated properties. Ideally, the county would work with localities to conduct a regular structured property survey to identify blighted properties for several reasons: to flag properties in need of attention that may not be high profile enough to make the priority properties list; to track successful remediation of individual properties; and to track the level of blight over time at the local and county levels. The county should be prepared to see a spike in reported blight for a period as reporting improves before seeing a decrease resulting from new remediation activities.

Bethlehem already has a process in place to certify blight; the challenge is to support the smaller municipalities to track blight using a standard definition and at regular intervals. An important outcome of the Bethlehem and Northampton County blight planning processes was helping officials understand and articulate that it takes a set of investments—not a set of expenses—to accomplish blight management goals. This includes investment in data systems, education for magistrates and other decision makers, staff hiring and training, and establishing shared code enforcement for multiple boroughs and a redevelopment authority or land bank Over time, these efforts and allocations of resources can create a more effective and fiscally efficient system for addressing and preventing blight in both cities and rural boroughs in the Lehigh Valley.