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Allegheny County purchase of liens opens doors to development

By Justin Vellucci
Thursday, January 24, 2008

Doug Van Haitsma looks at a three-story apartment building in Swissvale and sees the heart of a revitalized neighborhood.

Now that Allegheny County has bought back the lien — a legal claim for unpaid taxes — on the Monongahela Avenue property, Van Haitsma said his plan to convert it and 50 nearby parcels into a Mon Valley gateway is a step closer to reality.

“It’s a pocket within Swissvale that has really fallen on hard times,” said Van Haitsma, real estate director for the Mon Valley Initiative, a development group. “Having those liens in friendly hands … is a huge advantage.”

The county redevelopment authority agreed Wednesday to spend $1.625 million to buy back liens on 19,013 properties it sold a decade ago to GLS Capital Inc. The purchase includes vacant homes, commercial buildings and undeveloped lots in 129 municipalities — every town in the county except Pennsbury Village.

Officials hope the purchase spurs a development boom.
“We felt this was a pretty good deal,” said Dennis Davin, director of the county’s economic development office. “This gives us control of what happens at these properties.”

The purchase also ends a 2007 lawsuit in which GLS accused the county of selling it “defective liens,” such as ones for sites the government planned to acquire through eminent domain, county solicitor Mike Wojcik said. The Virginia-based company sought more than $1.85 million in damages, court records show.

“It became cumbersome having to deal with them,” Wojcik said. “We can get GLS out of the picture now.”

GLS could not be reached for comment.

Attorney E.J. Strassburger, who helped file the lawsuit, forwarded questions to an attorney who didn’t return calls. Strassburger’s firm also represents the Tribune-Review.

The purchase represents just part of the 77,000 delinquent accounts GLS bought for nearly $50 million in the mid-1990s.

About one in every four of the purchased properties — roughly 4,500 — are in Pittsburgh. The city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority is interested in acquiring some liens in hopes of drawing developers to those properties, many of which are vacant, Davin said.

The head of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which is restoring four Wilkinsburg homes once hit with tax liens, lauded the move.

“It sounds good to us because it (puts) the property back into the control of the county,” said foundation president Arthur Ziegler. “It would make renewal of them much easier.”

Patrick Shattuck, a ninth-generation Vermont native who moved to Wilkinsburg a year ago, agreed. He wants to turn vacant lots whose liens were bought by the county into parking and open space near his 108-year-old Edwardian home.

“The goal is to get the properties back into the hands of folks that are going to use them … and make these communities vibrant again,” Shattuck said.

The move to buy previously sold liens is not new. In 2006, Pittsburgh officials teamed with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and Pittsburgh Public Schools to buy liens on more than 11,000 properties for $6.5 million. The city sold about 14,000 liens from 1996 to 1999 for $64 million.

Justin Vellucci can be reached at or 412-320-7847

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633