Clyde Wilhelm remembers a hometown where neighbors could walk down a dark street without a care—a place where kids could play outside without leaving behind a worried mother.
He remembers the breathtaking view of his old Swissvale stomping grounds on Buena Vista, the street where he came of age.
He remembers the name of every kid who lived on the block.
Those times have changed.
“As with any town, 30 years ago it was completely different than it is now,” Wilhelm said. “There was less crime, we all walked to school, most of the homes were well-kept and it was a tight-knit community.”
The overgrown brush and trees now distort the once grandiose view of the Mon Valley on Buena Vista Street. Several abandoned homes and apartment buildings stand in silence, the sheriff’s sale signs on doors screaming the symptoms of foreclosure.
But today, the junior firefighter who joined at 14 turned Swissvale Fire Chief oversees and implements a tireless program in which he also acts as building code official, cleaning up a borough that has more than 200 abandoned structures—all the while giving out about 80 citations a month to property owners who need to do more to keep their homes up to par.
“I have a great affection for this town that I grew up in and that’s the driving force—that’s what keeps me going if I feel overwhelmed,” Wilhelm said. “You just don’t know how to stop the hemorrhaging. It’s like a cancer.”
While several economic factors have contributed to the housing problem in Swissvale over the last 30 years, Wilhelm said the recent foreclosure crisis along with the strife of the ‘80s has put the borough in a rough situation.
“As the children grew up and the parents remained here, our number one export in the ‘80s and ‘90s were people who relocated all over the country,” he said. “As elderly members passed, it wasn’t like the old days where a member of the family would come in and take over.”
Houses were sold for less and less as many buyers turned the buildings into rental units. Others were turned into duplexes and triplexes, significantly increasing the rental and transient population of Swissvale, taking away a foundation of homeowners.
“We experience a lot of issues with absentee landlords, people who don’t live around here who own these buildings and rent to whomever with a high turnover in a lot of rental units,” he said. “I think during the housing boom over the last decade, a lot of people bought into these homes for rental properties as investments and there are a ton of foreclosures and bankruptcies going on right now. That is creating a significant amount of strain on our resources just in trying to track down who the responsible party is.”
When he’s not fighting fires, Wilhelm’s other job comes in as he takes the first step to rebuild his hometown with his staff—one structure and one small step at a time.
Complications of Foreclosure
Wilhelm drives down Swissvale’s streets with a sharp eye. He signs every building occupancy permit and knows who doesn’t have one.
During a recent summer day after passing an apartment building where workers were installing a roof over patios about a block long, he pulled over immediately to give them a first notice. They needed a permit and he knew it.
“It’s state law,” he said.
Other issues prolong resolutions on a daily basis when it comes to battling a barrage of empty houses and structures.
At 7801 Westmoreland Ave., an owner was initially sent a notice of an occupancy permit violation. The fire marshal sent the owner a list of what needed to be done and the owner never completed the work. The owner then filed for bankruptcy and was later under foreclosure for the property, Wilhelm said.
“We got a fire call up there one day and a woman was living there with no utilities except for electric and she had a bunch of extension cords everywhere and hazardous wiring that ended up catching on fire,” he said. “We didn’t even know it was still occupied.”
The property owner was cited again. The magistrate handling the case determined the owner was no longer responsible for the property because he didn’t have possession of the building anymore as a result of foreclosure.
“Trying to deal with the financial company that owns the building, I can’t get any information on who the contact is and have to go through a third party called Safeguard Properties,” Wilhelm said. “I have sent notices numerous times and they came out, secured the building and removed some of the bricks and said they would fix it—then nothing happened.”
Wilhelm received a follow-up call with a person from Safeguard asking what needed to be done to the property, causing him to re-send the citation information a second time.
“These kinds of things are common,” Wilhelm said.
Solutions to the Problem
In an effort to move forward while making progress in a system that can often take months to resolve, Wilhelm, who became fire chief and the building code official in January of 2010, has created a system that will eventually address every building in the borough.
“Any time an occupant changes in a dwelling or premesise, we are required to inspect for health and safety reasons and they must be abated before someone can move in,” Wilhelm said. “This is for new tenants and homes.”
Wilhelm and his crew enforce the international maintenance and fire code, which he asked Swissvale Council to approve through an ordinance in April 2010.
“It’s really all about property maintenance, ensuring things are safe and making sure it’s up to fire code in the same manner,” Wilhelm said. “I instituted a program where we start at 'Street A,' and go through the alphabet looking at the records of every street and any dwelling that we have reason to believe is a rental property and never had a valid occupancy permit.”
Those owners who never received a permit get a courtesy letter and violation notice that explains the situation, gives them a copy of the ordinance and a sample checklist of deficiencies Wilhelm looks for, along with 10 days to correct the situation.
“We’re finding a lot of properties that have never been inspected, never had occupancy permits and buildings that were illegally converted into multi-family dwellings," he said.
Wilhelm also helps owners along the way to move forward in gaining variances for zoning to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.
At 2319 Patterson Ave., a once abandoned apartment building is in the process of being fully renovated. Wilhelm said private money coming into the borough to complete these kinds of projects is a key answer to the success of his department's efforts in the long run.
“I think that our future is really going to be based on making those types of investments from those types of individuals and companies, because they have greater availability of resources in the current economic climate,” he said. “We have two options—buildings remain vacant, decay and fall down or somebody gets into them, renovates and gets them occupied."
Wilhelm sometimes becomes overwhelmed by the magnitude of his work as both fire chief and building code official, but he moves forward with each property and each step of progress.
“I get people calling me and asking me why we aren’t doing anything, and with the laws that are in effect, we have very limited scope and ability to do things about this,” he said. “We can tear down all the buildings that we deem unsafe—if we have the money.”
With a borough that just raised one mill last year to stay above water, he said it’s amazing that Swissvale maintains all of the services that it does now.
“It’s a very fast-paced, high-volume atmosphere right now,” Wilhelm said.
Swissvale Fire Marshal Eric Parrish lived in Swissvale for nine years before moving to North Versailles. He remains dedicated to the many facets of work the fire department is committed to in the borough.
“We have taken long strides to preserve the community, long strides in providing healthy and safe environments for the residents and workers of Swissvale, and all I can say is the work that we do, I would put it up against any larger community that has more money than us, more residents and more man power to do it,” Parrish said. “We are able to accomplish this because we have our mind set on a goal—we are doing it for the right reason.”
Wilhelm said he and his crew continue forward to build a better Swissvale—and he is ready for the challenges.
“We are making a difference in trying to get some of these houses and homes back on the tax rolls and occupied by people one at a time and just making a difference in trying to get it back to the town that most of us who were born and raised here remember.”