Beyond the Borough’s Borders – Part 2

I’d like to pick up where we left off by pointing out an important distinction in the way local governments deal with county government. These inter-governmental relationships play out on at least two levels: the staff level and the political level. The local and county staff are often in the trenches together, working on grant applications, sharing information, preparing documents for public hearings, meeting deadlines, etc.

The politicians… well, that can be a whole other story, even in the cases where the staff are somewhat merrily chugging along, jointly getting things done. Politics is what we read about in the paper – the votes we don’t understand; the frustration that’s built up over years, perhaps decades; the public policy – and the whole tone of the discussion – that is ultimately set by the elected officials.

In some sense, the wheels of government at the staff level just keep turning. Ideally, though, the local elected officials would be on the same page with county/ regional planning policy in order to keep those wheels greased. (It’s a karma thing.)

On to outside resources…

1. Everyone should know a little bit about Pottstown’s Keystone Opportunity Zone or KOZ. These zones exist in select places throughout Pennsylvania and provide for the elimination of certain state and local taxes for a limited period in order to encourage the redevelopment of specific properties that have not been generating much in taxes anyway and where their redevelopment could increase taxable activity outside the zone. Pottstown’s KOZ parcels are listed here, via Montgomery County’s Economic and Workforce Development website. I believe Pottstown’s KOZ designation expires in 2013. I don’t see news anywhere that any properties have been developed to take advantage of these tax breaks. (There seems to have been a move by the School District in July 2009 to seek an extension of the KOZ zone to 2020. More info/clarification from any readers out there?)

2. The Main Street Program is a 5-year State program to support a Main Street Manager position and the creation of a local organization to manage downtown revitalization efforts. In Pottstown, that organization is the Pottstown Downtown Improvement District Authority or PDIDA. The members are listed here. A map of the PDIDA district is here.

The State Main Street Program provides $115,000 over the five years (with more money given in the early years) and requires a local match. The idea is that the position would become self-sustaining. There is also a Downtown Reinvestment and Anchor Building component to the program that could provide up to $250,000. I’m not sure if Pottstown has taken advantage of the latter, or what year their program is in… (I hope to interview Leighton Wilderick, current Main Street Manager, sometime in the next few weeks!) The State closed off new Main Street applications this past year. At any rate, it looks like this particular funding stream may not be available much longer.

3. Pottstown’s got “brownfields,” properties that contain or potentially contain a hazardous substance, contaminant or pollutant. The PA Dept. of Environmental Protection has an Office of Community Revitalization and Local Government Support to help towns deal with the redevelopment of these kinds of properties.

4. As August 2010 winds to a close, federal money is now available for planning grants that recognize the interrelatedness between housing, transportation and economic development. For the first time, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Transportation will be accepting applications at a single entry point for Community Challenge and TIGER II Planning Grants, and HUD is taking applications for their Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program. At least for now, with the current Administration in D.C., there’s a clear push for coordinated, regional planning that explicitly takes into consideration the connections between housing, transportation and economic development.

The Pottstown Partnership will have to keep in mind all of these possible funding sources and agencies, thinking creatively and collaboratively in order to tap into any possible funding immediately, as soon as it becomes available. The only way to pounce is to know what’s coming down the pike ahead of time and to have your partnerships in the non-profit, government and private sectors all on solid footing.

5. Last but not least, I’d like to spend a moment considering all the businesses, entrepreneurs, consumers, and large and small investors. This “funding stream,” if you will, includes anyone or any entity with capital to invest or spend in Pottstown, whether it’s for the purchase of a building or for dinner and theater tickets. They are constantly making choices between spending their money in Pottstown or elsewhere.

Pottstown’s been struggling for a long time. Many people are worn out. It hurts to see prosperity visiting nearby communities and bypassing one’s own. Every once in a while, there will be a burst of negative online comments about other people with real or imagined, greater wealth or education. These comments impart a suspicion about “outsiders.” They have appeared most noticeably in the discussions about rental housing. Yes, there are some very real, valid concerns that should be, and are being, addressed through enforcement and, I gather, small group discussions between the Borough Manager and the affected parties. My point here is that, after a while, these comments can come across as a general, negative community attitude about investors, period. And that’s not good for economic development.

The planning profession is specifically concerned about improving equity across the entire spectrum of human needs – housing, clean water and air, education, food, transportation, the list goes on. That was a huge reason I was drawn to it in the first place. I think it’s crucial to acknowledge the disparities and our own attitudes toward them, and then hold it all up to the light, especially if they might be getting in the way of the collective best interest. Where and how can public policy be equitable for the most participants AND get the community what it needs to move forward? The balancing act never stops.

As you may have figured out, we’ve basically been taking a rough inventory in order to get an overall sense of what we’re dealing with – the physical landscape, how Pottstown looks on various maps, the people and groups doing the work of the community, the key resources, relationships and perceptions from outside the Borough. Next, I’d like to take another pass at what’s happening inside the Borough, specifically looking at the regulatory framework that land developers and investors would have to navigate if they wanted to locate their businesses there. The problem is, not nearly enough of them do. What’s that all about?

Next up: The regulatory framework for land development in Pottstown.

Beyond the Borough’s Borders – Part 1

We’re in a small airplane now, considering how Pottstown geographically connects and relates to its region. How do the uses and zoning along its borders complement or conflict with neighboring municipalities’ uses and zoning? Note the major manmade and natural features of the landscape: railroad tracks, highways, bridges, industrial areas, schools and playgrounds, parks and green spaces, the river, the creek. You can try to also let your eyes only notice one category at a time – just the roads, or just the green spaces – to further imprint how things connect… or don’t.

Still up in that plane, let’s consider how all the groups and individuals in the community (the ones we talked about in the last post) interact with and represent Pottstown to the outside world of the county, the state and federal governments (regulatory agencies and funding sources), private foundation funding sources, and the private sector. What is the quantity and quality of those interactions? How can they become more positive, active and productive, so that the Borough can get its due? Especially in these difficult times, how can the Borough become more competitive for a bigger share of whatever funding and economic growth there is to be had in the region?

Let’s land the plane and head to our computers.

I said in my first article that your zoning tells you who you are and who you want to be. That wasn’t quite the bottom line. Your Comprehensive Plan is actually the foundation that underlies the zoning. The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code is the legislation that enables communities “to plan their development and to govern the same by zoning, subdivision and land development ordinances, planned residential development and other ordinances, by official maps, by the reservation of certain land for future public purpose and by the acquisition of such land; to promote the conservation of energy…” It allows for planning commissions and zoning hearing boards. In short, it sets up the rules for the whole system of land development in the state.

Comprehensive Plans are divided into sections that address specific community concerns and needs: statement of objectives, land use, housing, transportation, community facilities & utilities, statement of interrelationships among plan elements, discussion of short and long-range implementation strategies, statement of compatibility with neighboring municipalities, and a plan for the protection of natural & historic resources. In many communities, the adoption or update of a comprehensive plan results in well-attended, lively public meetings because they know that this document may result in zoning changes which literally touch everybody where they live.

An open space plan would fall under the “land use” category above. Pottstown contracted with the County for an Open Space Plan, done in 2006. Please, please check out Fig. 2, Existing Land Use, a gorgeous map on page 14. (Bookmark it, too, because we’ll come back to that in later post.)

Comprehensive Plans are supposed to be updated at least once every 10 years. Pottstown last adopted its own Comprehensive Plan in 1986. More recently, it has used as its guiding planning document the Pottstown Metropolitan Regional Comprehensive Plan, which was done in 2005 and is in the process of being updated now. Other communities participating in that plan are: Upper Pottsgrove, Lower Pottsgrove, West Pottsgrove, New Hanover, Douglass, East Coventry, and North Coventry.

I’ll just say up front: I’m all for regional planning. Ideally, there’d be fewer school districts and municipalities and more regionally-based planning and government. “Home rule” has gotten many municipalities into a bunch of messes, and it’s clear that Pottstown and other First Suburbs have got more than their fair share. and from where I’m sitting, the Montgomery County Planning Commission looks like an incredible resource and likely ally for the Borough, so I’m kind of scratching my head when I hear or read negative comments online about “the County.”

If you go to the Montgomery County Community Revitalization Program page of their website and click on the Projects Summary – Completion Through 2009, you’ll see that Pottstown has gotten $3.4 million since the program’s inception in 2000. Only Norristown has gotten more at $5.9 million. The “X”s show work completed. The X for the 2006 Homeownership Initiative, Phase 3, should appear further to the right to indicate it was “partially completed,” but wordpress seems to want to put it right after the text.

Pottstown Borough
2000 PECO Acquisition & Bldg. Rehab. Commercial Building Improvements $158,100 X
2000 Site Plan – Riverfront Park Non-Construction – Plans, Studies & Engineerin $42,500 X
2000 Redevelopment Plan Non-Construction – Plans, Studies & Engineerin $46,750 X
2000 Marketing Non-Construction – CBD Marketing $25,000 X
2000 Economic Dev. Director Non-Construction – Revitalization Staff $51,000 X
2002 High Street Parking Parking Improvements $163,200 X
2003 Schuylkill River Center Commercial Building Improvements $27,000 X
2003 Homeownership Initiative Housing $87,500 X
2004 Pottstown Symphony Orchestra Cultural & Arts Attractions $10,000 X
2004 Homeownership Initiative, Ph. 2 Housing $224,500 X
2004 Downtown Marketing, Ph. 2 Non-Construction – CBD Marketing $33,500 X
2005 Pedestrian Underpass & Promenade Transportation – Pedestrian Connections $359,000 X
2006 Homeownership Initiative, Ph. 3 Housing $300,000 X
2006 Performing Arts Center, Ph. 1 Cultural & Arts Attractions $200,000 X
2007 Performing Arts Center, Ph. 2 Cultural & Arts Attractions $235,000 X
2007 Carousel, Ph. 1 Cultural & Arts Attractions $300,000
2007 Homeownership Initiative Housing $100,000
2008 Pottstown Airport Expansion Other $250,000
2008 Industrial Drive Redevelopment Plan Amendment Non-Construction – Plans, Studies & Engineerin $250,000
2009 Homeownership Initiative Housing $150,000
2009 Performing Arts Center Cultural & Arts Attractions $396,000
TOTAL: $3,409,050

Here are just some of the planning tools that the County has developed for use by its municipalities: state-of-the-art model ordinances, a newsletter called Planning Perspectives, and Planning by Design, bulletins that clearly describe design considerations in ways an average citizen can understand.

Suffice it to say that even with the County as part of the Pottstown Partnership, there needs to be renewed efforts – especially in this time of spending freezes and private sector slowdown – to get/to keep the Borough’s development priorities front and center with the County. In that sense, Pottstown has to take charge of its own destiny.

Okay, so I’ve spent a lot of time on the County, but the importance of this relationship cannot be overstated. The County is a planning and policy partner as well as a funding source, and the Borough needs to be working positively and pro-actively with them on every level. I really don’t know all the ins and outs of how they work together, so it’d be great if people could comment on that.

Radiating outward, real quick… the Borough should put itself out there as a spokesperson for the redevelopment and revitalization challenges facing older, developed communities. That means being an active participant in the conversations about First Suburbs, the PA Land Bank legislation, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s policies and funding schedules, the County’s regional planning issues, and even federal community development funding priorities. First and foremost, the Borough’s got to start achieving some success in its own revitalization efforts. But along with that, if it makes itself visible in these broader arenas, and makes its voice heard, it could improve its chances to move toward the front of the line when it comes time to receive the ever-dwindling funds that are out there.

There’s more radiating outward to be done. I’ve got to wrap this up and we didn’t even get to the Keystone Opportunity Zone, or the private sector, or consumers with money! I’ll have to cover those in the next post of the series.

Note: I’m going to Bethlehem today with a contingent from Pottstown to check out Musikfest and learn how Bethlehem used arts and cultural development as an economic redevelopment tool. I took a continuing ed class on this kind of stuff last year and can’t wait to see this particular example in action. I’ll be sure to report on it asap.

HB 712 – PA Land Bank Legislation

This afternoon I sat in on an hour-long webinar on proposed legislation that would enable the creation and operation of land banks in PA. The ability to create land banks would give all municipalities and counties a tremendous tool against blight and property abandonment. I could see a Pottstown Land Bank working hand-in-hand with The Pottstown Partnership, Genesis Housing and even PACA, offering homes for sale or lease-purchase throughout the Borough, marketing & offering housing and work space to artists (similar to Paducah, KY), attracting homeowners, entrepreneurs and businesses, and getting properties back on the tax rolls. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania sponsored the webinar. The presenters were Cindy Daley, Policy Director of the Housing Alliance, and Irene McClaughlin, an attorney and mediator who has spent her career dealing with blight-related issues in the Pittsburgh area. From the Alliance website: “Anti-blight land banking legislation passed the House on Tuesday, June 29, 2010 by a majority vote of 190-8. HB 712 provides for the creation of land banks for the conversion of vacant or tax-delinquent properties into productive use. The Housing Alliance supports this bill, although we anticipate it will need some technical amendments in the Senate.”

Below are some key points about what this legislation would allow and how a land bank would function. There are still questions about the nitty-gritty details, but with such overwhelming support in the House, it seems like this legislation could very well get passed in some form pretty soon. It is enabling legislation, which means that it allows land banks to be created but it’s up to individual towns and counties. It is NOT mandatory.

There are an estimated 300,000 vacant properties statewide. Between population and job loss and sprawl, rural, inner ring suburbs and urban communities have been faced with blight and abandonment.

An abandoned house or lot reduces the value of all other surrounding houses by an average of $6,720.

There might be potential buyers for these properties, but an inability to find the property owner, the lack of clear title, and debt that exceeds the property’s value all prevent a property from getting a new owner. Existing tools are inadequate: uncertainty of tax foreclosure process; cost & difficulty of condemnation; and existing laws, which have been on the books for decades never anticipated people simply walking away from property.

Land banks are single purpose entities created by local government to manage properties that no reasonable purchaser otherwise wants.

Would allow for the clearing of existing liens and old debt; clearing of title; remediation; assembly of parcels for current market conditions; holding of property until a market emerges; disposal or transfer under terms and conditions driven by the market.

Land banks just a part of a larger picture. Still need tax collection and foreclosure reform along with clearer mechanisms for protecting low-income homeowners or owners who simply wait until the last possible minute before paying their taxes. This enabling legislation – HB 712 – is just the beginning of the process.

Details of HB 712
Defines a Land Bank as a public agency.
Jurisdiction: Cities or counties that are authorized by state law to create a redevelopment authority. Any city or boro with 10K or more population.
Formed by an ordinance subject to approval by a mayor or county executive.
Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement (ICA) between 2 or more land bank jurisdictions.
Smaller jurisdiction could join an existing land bank.
If there’s a land bank in a city and in that county, the county can’t take real property in that city.

Board of Directors
5-11 members (odd number); can include public officials and municipal employees.
Must include at least one voting member who is a community resident and a member of a civic organization, but who is not a public official or employee.
Must have open meetings, a regular meeting schedule and follow Sunshine Laws.
Staff: may hire employees, or have crossover with city staff & municipal functions

General powers
Adopt, amend, repeal bylaws
Borrow money
Issue negotiable revenue bongds and notes
Enter into contracts
Collect rent
Design, develop, construct, demolish real property
Partnerships, joint ventures for development of real property.
Needs to have capacity to maintain the property according to existing codes.

Acquisition & Holding of Property: gift, transfer, exchange, foreclosure, purchase, from municipalities, from tax claim bureaus. At this point, these properties are undesired by anyone else.
Land bank’s real property, income and operations are exempt from state & local taxation.
Land banks may only acquire property within their jurisdiction, except by Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement (ICA.) Except if property is leased out to 3rd party for more than 5 years, then income becomes taxable. Ideally, will stabilize and bring up values of surrounding properties.

Disposition: A land bank must create an inventory of its real property which is available to the public for inspection.
May sell, transfer, lease, or mortgage any real property of the land bank.
A land bank may establish priorities for the re-use of real property it conveys, including but not limited to uses for: purely public spaces and places, affordable housing, retail, commercial & industrial activities, conservation areas. These uses are not specified in the bill; it’s up to each particular Land Bank. Priorities don’t have to be uniform across the land bank area. Bill recognizes that land use is going to be specific to location. By-laws and any ICA would establish specifics and priorities.

Financing Land Bank operations:
Grants & loans from municipality, Commonwealth, Fed. Govt. & other public & private sources.
Payments for services rendered.
Rents and leasehold payments.
A practice adopted in Michigan that provides a regular funding source: an agreement is reached with the taxing jurisdictions – not more than 50% of real property taxes collected for 5 years after the transfer of property will go back to the land bank. As proposed in HB 712, this is optional, subject to agreement with municipality and school district.
Borrowing and issuance of bonds. Municipalities may but are not required to guarantee the bonds Bonds and income are tax-exempt.

Required to keep records of proceeding & subject to following state laws:Open meetings, Right To Know, Conflict of Interests, Ethical Standards Laws

Special Powers
Power to discharge & extinguish real property tax liens and claims, subject to the approval of the school district for school taxes.
May file a court action to quiet title in an expedited procedure. Multiple parcels of real property may be joined in a single complaint in action to quiet title.
Land banks do NOT have power of eminent domain.

Dissolution: There is a procedure for dissolution of the Land Bank.

Audits: Land bank income and expenses and a report will be submitted annually to DCED and to participating municipalities.

Land Banks and PA Real Estate Tax Collection & Foreclosure
Municipalities may assign tax claims and liens to the land bank. Municipality and a land bank may agree to a set bid price in advance of public auction (upset sale or judicial sale as well as at “single sale” allowed unter MCTLL (only for Phila and Allegh. Counties)) and transfer property to the Land Bank as purchaser in accordance with the agreement. Within 30 days of the purchase, the land bank must receive the deed transferring the property free and clear of all claims, liens and charges.

Next steps: HB712 is now in Senate Urban Affirs & Housing Committee. The Committee intends to hold a hearing on the bill – early Sept.? The Housing Alliance is convening a Working Group to review the bill & propose amendments. All interested stakeholders are invited to participate. And once the language of HB 712 is finalized, the group will begin working on mechanism for financing land banks and tax sale reform, including strong hardship waivers.

First Suburbs, Keim Street Bridge & Keystone Blvd. extension

Exactly the kind of issue that would benefit from analysis and advocacy by the First Suburbs coalition is how PennDOT and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) set transportation funding priorities.

From their website: “The Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project is a regional coalition of community leaders from developed suburbs that have joined together to harness their communities’ power by directly engaging citizens to affect policies and practices that will lead to the stabilization and revitalization of their communities.”

They’re holding the Building One Pennsylvania Summit tomorrow, Friday, July 16, 2010, 10:00am – 4:00pm (doors open at 9:00) at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, 750 E. King Street, Lancaster, PA.

I know a few Pottstown residents are going and I hope someone is going to officially represent the Borough.

In a recent presentation to Pottstown Borough Council, a representative of the DVRPC described how the funding for the repair/replacement of the historic Keim Street Bridge wouldn’t be available for approximately 6-8 more years, or completed for at least 10 years. See The Mercury’s video here. The issue was also discussed by Jeff Leflar on the Code Blue blog.

In the video, Council President Stephen Toroney notes that, ideally, the bridge would be re-aligned with Keim Street AND Keystone Boulevard would be extended to the Route 422 Stowe interchange, thus allowing Pottstown to be part of the 422 flow rather than cut off from it. Toroney rightly pointed out, “That’s the key to our Bethlehem Steel site. To get some businesses in there.” He asked about the possibility of fast-tracking and a public/private partnership to make those things happen. It wasn’t clear, due to the video editing, whether the DVRPC representative ever responded directly to those questions.

I would not let this go. And I don’t mean that in a confrontational way. I mean that there is a strong regional planning case to be made for addressing this root-cause, which is directly connected to jobs and fiscal stability, through recurring dialogue and a working relationship with these agencies specifically around this issue.

This problem is reminiscent of the ultimate effect on many of our nation’s cities of the Federal Highway Act of 1956, which funded the interstate highway system. Massive roadways and overpasses cut downtowns off from their rivers and diverted people, in their vehicles, away from city centers, opening up the countryside to housing and malls – what we now call “sprawl” – and leading to the disinvestment in urban cores.

On a smaller scale, that is what the current PennDOT/DVRPC transportation funding schedule perpetuates – the continued re-routing of traffic (and consumer dollars) around a town center/small city. This funding schedule, even if unintended, is in effect their public policy. It is a policy that, due to inadequate access for the movement of raw materials and finished goods, actually also hinders private sector economic development dollars from flowing into Pottstown.

For Pottstown’s former industrial sites ever to be re-used to their fullest, the newly formed Pottstown Partnership (which includes the County) will want to hit the ground running in talks with PennDOT and DVRPC to re-consider the current timeline on the Keim Street Bridge and to get the Keystone Boulevard extension on the table. The Partnership will also need to actively engage property owners, determining any clean-up and marketing strategies that will put these sites back in use. They are absolutely essential to Pottstown’s revitalization. None of these efforts toward the Pottstown Industrial Complex should be news. They are part of Goal #1 in the Action Plan of the Pottstown Economic Development Strategic Plan (March 2008).

There may be a history here (of inaction) such that funding agencies might be leery of directing resources where they’re skeptical about their ultimate benefit. Fair enough. That’s where the Borough – on its own and in the context of the Partnership – needs to step up and be pro-active with property owners, pro-active in seeking grants for brownfields redevelopment and putting together a package of other financing incentives, and leading the way in this kind of First Suburbs conversation.

Pottstown’s Proposed Rental Rules

I posted this earlier today at The Mercury (as Number5). The Mercury/First Suburbs project asked for feedback about proposed changes to the rental registration/inspection ordinance.

” Even Keel has hit the nail on the head. The current ordinances were/are not being enforced. Maybe some combination of revisions to the current ordinances would be ideal, although I’m skeptical of yet more layers & tougher sanctions in an environment where the most basic enforcement hasn’t even been tried yet. And Meadowdeb makes a good point: there are existing laws regarding landlord/tenant rights. An understanding of these must be explicitly part of the discussion.

Bottom line: passing ordinances is not that hard. Enforcement is and that’s been the problem. There should be much more discussion about how enforcement would work. Notifying tenants & landlords, scheduling inspections, showing up for inspections, re-scheduling, collecting fees, procedures with the courts, setting up payment systems for each instance where money might change hands, etc. This should all be thought out before changing an ordinance. What will be the day-to-day reality of any ordinance, even the existing ones?

What is the current Codes Dept. capable of handling right now on top of current duties? I admit I have no idea, so I have to imagine… I’m picturing an inspector coming back to the office from a day of inspections and re-inspections. Did he/she record the inspection results in a handheld device? Does he/she sit at a computer and input the data into a database that’s been set up… by whom? Does he/she hand a pile of papers to an administrative assistant? Are there paper files and computer files? How long does it take to send out the letter telling the landlord what repairs need to be done? The next day or a week or a month? How many units are we talking about here? How much time does a landlord get to do repairs? Does the landlord call to schedule the re-inspection, or is it put in the violation letter? Do inspections start in different parts of town simultaneously? Is there one inspector assigned to each ward or do they work all over town? How do you track the data that’s being collected so that you know how many units/buildings you’ve been to and whether your program is succeeding so that you can report the numbers to the taxpayers on a quarterly basis on your website? Just going through this exercise makes me think annual inspections are too much. By the time you’ve closed a lot of files, it’ll almost be time to give 60-day notice for the next inspection. And does any governmental entity really want to be collecting/tracking security deposits??

I’m not ashamed of having been a bureaucrat in a previous life. As a planner, maybe it’s in my DNA. Bureaucracies can be set up efficiently to accomplish a public policy goal, or they can be an unworkable, expensive nightmare. “Good government” – Pottstown has to be going for that. So, what, EXACTLY, needs to be in place to make enforcement a reality? And can the program pay for itself – salaries, paper, postage, computer & database management? Has there been any discussion based on facts – like the number of rental units in town – to justify proposed fees or prove fiscal sustainability?

Is it possible that the current ordinances could get things moving in the right direction & allow the Borough to put the proper systems in place and then re-assess the program after a year or two of operation? In any event, why not take the time now, in a public roundtable setting, to vet any changes or even new enforcement of existing laws with the stakeholders (landlords, tenants, concerned homeowners)? Then allow for Council to have a public discussion and accept public comment over the course of several meetings. It’s good of The Mercury to do this, but it really should be happening face-to-face at Borough Hall, with civility a top priority.

Proceeding with caution & collaborating could avoid lawsuits, save tax dollars in the long run, and get everyone a program that mostly (nothing’s perfect) achieves the desired outcomes: safe & decent housing and neighborhoods, housing stock that maintains or increases in value, and more positive perceptions of the town, which actually have a basis in reality.

Positively!Pottstown ”

“Tell us what you think about Pottstown.”

That was an online headline at The Mercury this past Friday, June 25. And then it said, “What positive changes need to be made for Pottstown borough to move forward? Tell us in the comments section below.”

Hmmm… I wondered, “Is this a set-up? Is The Mercury deliberately taunting me over here at Positively!Pottstown?”

I’m sorry, dear readers, I couldn’t hold this in any longer! Here’s what I posted over there this afternoon (as Number5).

” Dear Mercury: thanks for asking! I’ve been thinking about doing a series of blog posts about all these interrelated issues, so I guess this is kind of a jumpstart. Sorry for the length – a lot of pent-up thoughts! And my m.o. is to throw a lot out there and see what resonates on the ground – that’s the spirit in which this is offered.

I’m going to stick with the positive spin of the question – suggesting positive changes.

Pottstown, what’s your story? You need a vision and a voice to communicate that vision. It’s got to go deeper & get more specific than the generalities in study after study. For example: former industrial center retains what is good about its small town past AND re-invents itself for the 21st century. It values its river, historic architecture, walkability, neighborhoods, community gardens and businesses that MAKE things. While the industry used to be all about steel, pies, auto parts, etc., now the town makes art, dance, music, recycled-fashion designs, and solar/green technologies. What the heck, maybe it’s home to several organic coffee roasters too. (This is an example!)

What if just about every decision made by town or a local property owner or civic group took that kind of vision into consideration? There are places billing themselves as “sustainable cities.” Maybe Pottstown could be a “sustainable town”? Could something like that provide the framework for guiding revitalization decisions in Pottstown?

Pottstown has never been for the faint-of-heart; hard-working, gutsy immigrants made this community what it was in its heyday. Now is no different. Arts and business entrepreneurs, who have higher risk levels than the average Joe, would totally be in keeping with Pottstown’s immigrant past.

So, where are these risk-takers? You’ve got a bunch of them in the arts and restaurant community in town already. Another commenter has already mentioned them. Any day now, the Pottstown Arts & Cultural Alliance is going to launch a totally cool new website. PACA is on its way to putting a very new face on outsiders’ perceptions of Pottstown. They are adding value to this community by what they do every day and, now, by more effectively communicating what they offer. And they’re just getting started.

The business community and property owners are critical. Bottom line: You gotta fill the spaces on High Street. I’m putting out there right now: If anyone in the business and real estate community wants to put together a clearinghouse website to market their Pottstown properties in an attractive, easy-to-understand format that SELLS, I will gladly help make that happen within, say, 90 days. I’m from out of town and I’ve gone looking for properties as though I were an investor, and it’s not easy to even find out what’s available, let alone where might be some good locations for specific uses like a café or a used bookstore/literary venue or whatever.

Community groups: reduce fragmentation wherever possible. Join forces around a common, positive, pro-active vision. Link to and intersect with the arts, business & educational communities wherever appropriate.

Good government. There’s no way around this. There has to be a “good government” halo around Boro Hall that can be seen from Routes 422 and 100. Anyone stepping into the building has to know they will be treated courteously, fairly and consistently. There’s got to be follow-through. You got an ordinance on the books, you enforce it. If it doesn’t make sense in your new vision of yourself, you set out on a course of careful, PUBLIC consideration, you ENGAGE the affected parties/property owners, and you change it. The arts, business and community groups can go pretty far if they’re all pulling in the same direction, but unless the foundation of government is strong and inspires confidence, yeah, people are going to be hard-pressed to trust their investments here.

Nail down the vision ASAP. Preferably without paying for another study! Communicate the vision, whatever it is, through your ACTIONS. (I’ve got some more specifics to throw out there, but will deal with that on the blog.) Everyone: get your stories straight and tell it that way, over and over again, every time your organization or collective reaches a milestone, large or small. Give the naysayers less and less to talk about, especially on public message boards! ”

” Sorry, meant to sign that post:

Sue Repko
Positively!Pottstown ”

First Suburbs – Challenges of Rental Housing

As property values diminish and services are cut, First Suburbs usually begin to see a decline in rates of homeownership, creating a steady pool of vacant and less expensive properties for investors. In any discussion of the challenges that some rental markets may pose, though, it’s important to distinguish between tenants and buildings.

Depending on the slant of landlord-tenant law in a particular state, and the extent to which tenants in a community are aware of their rights, they may not have a strong voice to advocate for themselves and the condition of their buildings. In any public discussion about housing policy, all parties would be well-served to be careful not to lump all tenants into any broad category. Certainly, public policy itself should never seek to exclude based on negative stereotypes or broad assertions.

Tenants are people. I’m not trying to be a wise guy. This sometimes gets lost as frustrations mount, buildings deteriorate and discussions get heated. But tenants do become the neighbors, classmates, friends and employees in a community; they become citizens of the community. I’m not sure if such a program exists anywhere for tenants, but if community organizing is picking up speed – I’m thinking of Pottstown here – maybe there’s a way to incorporate a kind of Welcome Wagon program into the efforts. The best way to get new residents to understand and come to value community norms might be as simple as knocking on a new tenant’s door, saying “hello,” offering a folder with information, including their rights, and, yes, maybe a homemade pie. (I am talking about Pottstown, after all )

Although I have a lot of faith in the power of pie, of course it’s not going to solve a fiscal crisis. In no way do I mean to minimize the fiscal effect of increasing numbers of lower-income and special needs students straining a school district and the taxpayers. But the blanket blaming of tenants is not the answer. There are larger issues that have to be dealt with to turn a town toward greater homeownership, increased business investment and a stable tax base, so that the school district has a greater capacity to provide needed services. Enforcing the existing laws on the books would make a huge impact, not only on the day-to-day experience for current residents, but the perception of outsiders, funding sources and new businesses, about how well the town itself functions.

My first full-time job out of college was with the Section 8 program in Trenton. I did inspections all over the city, followed up on repairs, negotiated with landlords and re-certified tenant income. Several days each week were spent in the field, doing scheduled inspections. Other days were spent in the office, meeting with clients and keeping the paperwork moving. A quick look at Pottstown’s website shows that all the pieces are in place to carry out a rental registration and inspection program.

There’s the zoning ordinance, the required form for the initial registration of a property, the schedule of residential rental registration fees, the checklist for the inspection of residential rental units, and the inspection application with a change in occupancy. I am not sure why I have read/heard that the program is “voluntary.” The ordinance states that owners or rental agents “are required” to submit registrations and update any changes in occupancy.

In a recent post, a local blog – The Pulse! by a citizens’ action group, Code Blue – reported that a request for a list of all the Borough’s rental properties could not be accommodated because no such list exists.

Whether that was done in error or not, an excellent starting point for a rental registration list would be a list of the non-owner-occupied properties from the Montgomery County Board of Assessment Appeals. The entire property file, with all the data collected for assessment purposes, is available online. This wonderful tool allows anyone to search, for example, by Land Use Code and find out that Pottstown has 352 duplexes, 94 triplexes, 52 quadplexes and 43 conversions to 5 or more apartments.

It is not possible to use their advanced search function online to find out all the properties where “property owner address” does not equal “property address.” But the county will send the entire file, or just that search/sort, for $53 to anyone who requests it through the open public records process, as I recently did.

All of this is to say that there is a pretty good, existing list of non-owner-occupied units based on County data. So, what are the obstacles to running a rental registration and inspection program? Do fees need to be set to cover the cost of administration? Is current staff trained and ready to go? Administrative systems would have to be put in place to handle the incoming data and to assist in the monitoring and follow-up. Funds would have to be budgeted initially to notify ALL property owners by mail, website, newspapers and blogs that the ordinances are now going to be enforced as of a certain date, maybe 60 days out. And that fines will be levied for non-compliance. And that the police will be tracking the properties where they are called out three or more times for disturbances, which has its own consequences.

Enforcing these provisions is no different from enforcing tax collections. In fact, this kind of enforcement is possibly more critical to sending the message that a town is on top of its game, which is really the first step toward attracting new residents and economic activity.

First Suburbs: Affordable Housing Notes from NJ

Affordable housing policy is near the top of any First Suburbs agenda and rightly so. In towns that are experiencing the economic disinvestment described earlier – the loss of industry and large and small businesses – the value of the housing stock becomes more critical to the property tax base. And because education is by far the most expensive part of public services, a strong housing market is essential. Yet, the housing markets in First Suburbs suffer the same kind of disinvestment. How can the cycle be broken? Of course, that’s the multi-billion dollar question. And, of course, there’s no way I can answer it. All I can offer here is a resource for your further investigation of the regional and statewide inclusionary zoning system that has evolved over the past 35 years in New Jersey. I hope that these notes and links can inform the conversation and spark some ideas that help SEPA’s First Suburbs as they advocate for more equitable housing policies in their own region.

The New Jersey Fair Housing Act was passed in 1985 to try to even out social, economic and educational disparities between cities and suburbs. The Legislature passed it in response to a couple of New Jersey Supreme Court rulings, Mt. Laurel I (1975) and Mt. Laurel II (1983). The first decision basically found that large-lot zoning laws didn’t allow for a variety of housing types at varied price levels, which excluded people of color and of lower incomes. The second decision created the foundation for a system for determining a “regional housing need,” the “fair share obligation” of individual municipalities in that region, and the “builder’s remedy,” described below.

The Fair Housing Act created a Council on Affordable Housing and a vast body of regulations and calculations to assign a “fair share” number of low- and moderate-income units to each town based on a variety of factors. The program was voluntary. Towns could submit Housing Plans, get them certified through a lengthy process, and then be monitored for compliance. The “carrot” part of this approach was that if towns did this, they couldn’t be sued by builders or housing advocates over their zoning. But if they didn’t participate in the system, they could be subject to “the builder’s remedy” whereby a builder/developer could sue the town to increase the zoning density so that he could provide affordable units in a new development – usually 20%, which would remain affordable (price-restricted) for 30 years. Special housing courts with judges and court masters – urban planners who specialized in affordable housing – would hear these cases and make decisions, essentially taking zoning control away from the non-participating towns. That was the “stick.”

When the Legislature stepped up to pass the Fair Housing Act (and stop the Supreme Court from interfering with local zoning), it created a mechanism – Regional Contribution Agreements (RCAs) – to water down the court’s influence by allowing towns to buy their way out of up to 50% of their affordable housing obligation. “Sending” towns could pass bond ordinances and send the money – based on an agreed-upon per unit fee – to a designated “receiver” city in their region. In this way, some towns reduced the number of affordable units built within their borders, but they also provided urban areas with much-needed rehabilitation and new construction funding at a time when the federal government was cutting these programs. Still, it was clearly a way around the original intent of the court decisions.

More than 25 years later, in July 2008, the NJ Legislature and Gov. Jon Corzine abolished the RCA provision and also created a non-residential development fee of 2.5 percent to be charged on non-residential construction or improvements to raise revenue for the construction and rehabilitation of affordable and workforce housing in the state.

New Jersey’s system grew out of strong, grassroots advocacy for lower income people in the state’s cities, who knew that inner-city residents were being systemically kept out of better public schools, and safe and clean environments due to exclusionary housing laws. Builders were also pushing against these laws for their own gain during a period of generally remarkable economic growth in a state with ever-diminishing developable land.

We are in a very different economic and political environment now. One of Gov. Chris Christie’s first moves was to order a 90-day moratorium on most of the activities of the Council on Affordable Housing. The NJ courts once again stepped in and issued a stay on a portion of the order, while it is on appeal. The Governor is now reviewing the results of a Task Force on the matter. Even though many suburban towns truly voluntarily participated in this system, changed their zoning, and opened up their communities and schools to low- and moderate-income residents who might not otherwise have been able to live there, the complexity and the burdens of this system are legendary here. It has certainly produced affordable housing (see numbers here) and some degree of economic and educational opportunity for thousands. But there are still very real differences separating our cities and more affluent suburbs, namely, blatant racial segregation. Still, I think those Supreme Court justices back in the ‘70s and ‘80s were on the right track, recognizing that ordinances and public policy can have discriminatory effects and staying on the alert to try to counteract any systemic inequities.

New Jersey’s property tax/school funding system is broken – to say nothing of “home-rule,” our 566 municipalities and 605 school districts! The current widespread fiscal crisis only puts that in high relief. Finding political, social and economic solutions, that are also pragmatic, remains our challenge – and probably will be for some time to come. Taking New Jersey’s experience into consideration, though, may help SEPA’s First Suburbs get a better feel for how some housing policies might play out at the intersection of the private and public sectors in their own hometowns.

Note: The original post said that Gov. Christie’s recent order was repealed; a stay was issued on a portion of the order while it is under appeal.

Sue Repko is a writer, licensed urban planner in New Jersey and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. She grew up in Pottstown and blogs at Positively!Pottstown.

Community Gardens & First Suburbs – the start of a (long) conversation

This is the first in a series about First Suburbs of Southeastern PA.

This past Saturday a community gardening project took place at a corner park in the heart of Pottstown’s historically African-American neighborhood. The Washington Street corridor has faced its share of challenges over the years – challenges that many would characterize simply as “urban.” But by all accounts the gardening project was a huge success, bringing together a diverse array of children and adults, members of the broader community, and the energy of two organizations – Citizens for Pottstown’s Revitalization and Preservation Pottstown.

At The Mercury, this was news, before and after the event. Two local blogs, Code Blue and Save Pottstown!, promoted it ahead of time. And I certainly was thrilled to blog about it after the fact, thanks to the quick emailing of photos and updates from those in attendance.

To me, the fact that there was such a buzz is interesting in and of itself. What did this activity spark in individuals and the community? Can we try to define it, and in the process, become conscious of it, and try to do it again? There are all kinds of metaphors that spring forth from the gardening/growing process that are apt here. But I also think the actual process of growing food and flowers is good and vital… and not for just one neighborhood. Rather, it’s something for all of Pottstown and the school district to consider as a powerful tool for revitalization, which brings me to the First Suburbs Project.

According to their website, “The Southeastern Pennsylvania (SEPA) First Suburbs Project is a coalition of community organizations and institutions focused on solving common challenges facing the older, developed suburbs of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties. These communities share conditions of diminishing economic investment, declining infrastructure, struggling school districts, and social services lagging behind the needs of their residents.” Older suburbs and towns, like Pottstown, now find themselves face-to-face with a host of public challenges that were once thought to be the province of larger cities.

These conditions are the result of a self-fulfilling syndrome that works something like this:

Over a long period of time, disinvestment occurs due to range of causes, usually a combination of public policy and “free market” forces. Businesses and homeowners with rising incomes leave for literally greener pastures, creating sprawl. The people and businesses that remain must pay more in taxes to maintain the infrastructure, level of municipal services and school system. But these tax increases are too much for some more people and businesses; they leave. Over time, in an attempt to rein in taxes, services are cut. Property values do not go up under these circumstances, making properties concentrated in these areas attractive to investors, and decreasing the percentage of homeowners in a community. This downward spiral picks up momentum, and the chances for an economic recovery diminish even further

The (SEPA) First Suburbs Project advocates “state policy changes and regional solutions” as the best way to tackle these common challenges.

There will be a regional public meeting of the First Suburbs Project this Thursday, June 10 from 7-8:30 pm at South Hall on the Western Campus of Montgomery County Community College in Pottstown. SEPA First Suburbs coalition members want to hear the concerns, ideas, and questions of area residents, organizations, businesses and government officials about their very real experiences in the kind of environment described above.

I’m a firm believer in the potential for regional planning and public policy to mitigate these problems, and I encourage everyone to get to this meeting, speak out, listen and learn more about the possibilities for changing some of the inequities in public policy at the regional, state and even federal levels.

That’s on the one hand.

On the other hand, Pottstown cannot afford to wait for larger, slow-moving, governmental/political behemoths to change their own deeply-entrenched fiscal and social policies. Pottstown must continue to try to define a new course for itself ASAP… while simultaneously pursuing broader changes with other communities that find themselves in the same boat.

And this is where I come back to community gardens.

Below is my quick list of what might have made that such a great experience for those who were involved, and why it brings a smile and hope to someone reading about it. Readers should feel free to add to the list.

What’s Great about Gardening

    – Getting hands dirty; being a kid (again)
    – Adding beauty to surroundings
    – Transformation before your very eyes
    – Having responsibility to care for something that’s your own
    – Being given the chance to nurture
    – Anticipating wholesome food
    – Being around cheerful adults
    – Being pro-active; feeling of taking control, being in charge
    – Sharing snacks/food with other human beings after a job well done
    – Feeling that you are part of a caring community, not alone

    As I’ve blogged before: Community gardens are growing in popularity, especially in places where wholesome foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are not available or are too expensive. Basically, an available lot is divided up among interested residents and/or groups/clubs. Someone who knows something about gardening coordinates and teaches, so that participants end up with a steady flow of food and flowers. Of course, donations of tools, plants, seeds, soil are sought to make it all happen. Community gardens get people outside, get neighbors working together, provide better food at a lower price, raise awareness about nutrition and food production, and put an empty or nuisance lot to good use.

    During World Wars I and II, Victory Gardens in private yards and public parks were considered one’s patriotic duty to ease pressure on the food supply.

    So, what does this have to do with Pottstown’s revitalization on a larger scale?

    Private gardens were very much a part of my growing up. Just about everyone grew tomatoes. Picking apples and making applesauce were, and still are, an early fall tradition for my mom. These were traditions enjoyed by many immigrant, hard-working families that came to Pottstown to work, raise a family and improve their standard of living. Small-scale gardening is part of Pottstown’s past, and in these fiscally-challenging times, it makes a whole lot of economic sense to think about how to bring it back… but with a modern take.

    What if Pottstown became known as a place with a strong private and community gardening movement in its neighborhoods and the schools?

    As a non-resident, I don’t know the extent to which any of the items on the brainstorming list below are possible or already in the works. My inclination is to always just put ideas out there to see if any of them resonate on the ground, where people live.

    Ideas for Extending the Washington/Chestnut Park Project

– Identify a few Borough- or District-owned lots throughout town that might be suitable
– Factor garden space into the District’s land/building planning process, right up there with other energy-saving/sustainability measures
– Seek out several individuals with expertise and enthusiasm to guide smaller, working groups & organizations around town and in the schools.
– Get Bud Heller, Director of Food Services for the School District, on the case. Heller is a tireless advocate who has testified before Congress on behalf of the Fresh Food Produce Association and the School Nutrition Organization.
– Incorporate student-grown produce into menus?
– Is the healthy food program at Edgewood still going strong? Expand to other schools?
– Incorporate organic, small-scale food-growing concepts into science curricula
– Highlight the natural world in fiction, poetry and non-fiction in the English curricula
– Have science & English classes periodically come together for joint projects
– Is there a sustainability club in the high school?
– Have there been quantifiable efforts to reduce waste – in the cafeteria, paper, lights in classrooms, etc.– that engage the kids? See The Green Cup Challenge, which the Hill School has participated in. Tap The Hill, Montgomery County Community College and the Pottstown Garden Club for advice. So many people and resources right in Pottstown!
– Gardening does not have to be expensive; built-in labor pool in schools. Knowledgeable and generous landscapers and suppliers are out there, such as Eric Schmidt of Colonial Gardens, who provided materials for Pottstown’s gardening project.
– The Pottstown Health & Wellness Foundation’s grant program and Mission Good Nutrition videos are additional, key local resources.

The community gardening concept could be a way for Pottstown – and other First Suburbs – to take a past practice that was sensible and sustainable and re-claim it in a way that will appeal to anyone who wants to live in an engaged, progressive-minded community today. The power of people working together on an activity so basic to human survival should not be underestimated. Last weekend’s project at Washington & Chestnut Streets has given a glimpse of the positive, communal energy in Pottstown that is looking for a meaningful outlet. In a time when so much in the world seems out of our control, gardening can put some kind of power back into the hands of the people.

Note: The Pottstown Health & Wellness Foundation’s grant program and Mission Good Nutrition videos are additional, key local resources, which were inadvertently omitted from the original post.

Sue Repko is a writer, licensed urban planner in New Jersey and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. She grew up in Pottstown and blogs at Positively!Pottstown.

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