Ripe for abuse: Conservatorship statute should be used sparingly

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Contrary to the adage, a person's home isn't always his castle.

The government can take a home for non-payment of taxes or if the property is needed for a public-works project. Utilities can take a slice of property for pipeline projects. Now, nonprofits or neighbors also can take a home if they don't like what the owners are doing or not doing with it.

The process, called conservatorship, is supposed to help community groups take control of and fix up abandoned, vacant or blighted properties.

But the potential for abuse is sobering. In one case reported by the Post-Gazette, a McKeesport group tried to seize a house that people were living in and claimed to own. In another, a group took over a house even as the owners said they were trying to sell it and worried about being robbed of their equity.

Supporters note that a judge must rule on all conservatorship requests, giving property owners a level of due process.

But in Allegheny County, the judge overseeing these cases, Donald Walko, wrote the state's conservatorship law while serving in the Legislature. As a person who favors the concept, he's the last person who should be ruling on conservatorship issues. Property owners would be forgiven for doubting they'll get a fair shake in his courtroom.

There's no doubt that community groups wrestle with nuisance properties that mar their neighborhoods and affect home values. In those cases, they should lean on their elected officials and code enforcement agencies to force the owners to bring the structures up to code. Take the slumlords to court, if necessary. Properties condemned by a municipality can be demolished, permanently removing the blight.

Community groups also have the option of buying properties if government takes them for non-payment of real-estate taxes. Conservatorship shouldn't be an end run around the time-consuming tax-delinquency sales — although one supporter told the PG that's one reason the law has been embraced in her neighborhood.

There's also the question of whether some people — involved in conservatorship organizations not tied to specific communities — are making a business out of the process.

People who inherit properties, or have limited means to improve them, shouldn't be penalized for taking more time to restore them than impatient community groups would like. This is their property, their investment, their equity, and it shouldn't be taken from them lightly.

Conservatorship should be used sparingly, only by true neighborhood groups wrestling with long-problem properties, and it should be subject to vigorous oversight by judges who haven't advocated for the law governing the process.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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