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Erie has a better weapon to fight the plague. Why not use it?

The recent house fire in a vacant building in the 400 block of East 10th Street, which spread to three occupied houses and left dozens of residents homeless, is not the first time a vacant, dilapidated house has caught fire in Erie, and it won’t be the last. The Erie City Council maintains a list of nearly 300 dilapidated buildings, most of which are slated for demolition because of their unsafe condition. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The city’s 2016 comprehensive plan, Erie Refocused, puts the total number of vacant and abandoned housing units in the city at over 6,000. Yet because of the long and complicated legal process the city uses to acquire and then demolish these properties (some have been on the list for 10 years or more), Erie News Now reports as of 2020 that only 84 properties from the Redevelopment Authority’s inventory have been demolished by 2023. In the meantime, the list of vacant and unsafe properties continues to grow.

The city should consider whether this slow approach is up to the challenge of hundreds, if not thousands, of potentially dangerous buildings. There is a better, faster way to clear dangerous buildings before the next fire causes property damage and even loss of life – and we don’t even need to look at the answer, we only need to look at the city’s response to the damage caused by the recent fire at 422 East 10th St. City officials simply used their existing legal authority under municipal code to demolish these buildings.

This authority is used by municipalities throughout Pennsylvania and other states to demolish any building that has “become so dilapidated or dilapidated, or has become so in need of repair, as to be dangerous, unsafe, unsanitary, or otherwise unfit for human habitation or use.” When faced with building inspectors, an official generally sends the owner a notice to repair or remove the building at their own expense. If the notice is not complied with after a reasonable period of time, the city can either make repairs or demolish the building and then seize the property to cover the costs.

Erie Refocused has made one thing very clear: we are at war with the plague. Let us use every weapon at our disposal to fight this battle.

David Forrest, Erie