The Urban Lawyer

Fix It or Lose It: The Allure and Untapped Potential of Pennsylvania’s Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act

by Melanie B. Lacey

Melanie Lacey (melanie.lacey@gmail.com) received her J.D. from Rutgers Law School in May 2016 and her B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Melanie worked on “conservatorship” projects during law school as a legal intern at Mt. Airy, USA, a community development corporation in Northwest Philadelphia. She would like to thank the former executive director of Mt. Airy USA, Anuj Gupta, Esq., and the current executive director, Brad Copeland, for introducing her to the complexities of community development, and for their generous professional guidance. Special thanks to Richard L. Vanderslice, Esq. for his insight during the research phase of this project, to Adjunct Professor William A. Slover (Rutgers School of Law) and Professor Rick Swedloff (Rutgers School of Law) for their feedback on earlier drafts, and to the editorial board at The Urban Lawyer for their great attention to detail. The author is responsible for any errors.


I. Introduction

IMAGINE BEING ABLE TO SUE SOMEONE OVER THE POOR CONDITION OF A DERELICT HOUSE in your neighborhood. The Pennsylvania Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act1 (the “Act”) affords such opportunity. While housing code regulations threaten violators with fines, and urban renewal laws incentivize investors with benefits, conservatorship is uniquely situated both in theory and in mechanics. The focal point shifts from the wrongdoer and fixer, to the interests of the injured third parties. Conservatorship allows those injured parties to seek a custodial role over the nuisance property that could potentially lead to ownership. Like Pennsylvania’s tax sale law,2 it creates a market for distressed assets; however, the laws are distinct.

The economic analysis of law offers improvements “by pointing out respects in which laws have unintended or undesirable consequences,”3 and that is the goal of this article. This article proceeds as follows: Part II provides a brief overview of how Conservatorship generally functions.

Part III discusses the negative externalities4 that Conservatorship seeks to address. Part IV qualitatively looks at the opportunity cost5 of conservatorship in relation to some of the other investment alternatives that seek to alleviate blight and abandonment. Part V evaluates the practical shortcomings of Conservatorship through private costs and benefits.6 This discussion of costs and benefits is supplemented with statistics from court filings between January of 2008 and July of 2014, which are also represented in the graphical figures. Part VI examines the shortcomings of existing tax reduction options before evaluating a proposed amendment that provides standardized debt forgiveness. Part VII discusses how such an amendment could affect the City of Philadelphia. Part VIII concludes with main points.

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