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Rural Issues

From the archives 2022

Almost 90% of rural Pennsylvania municipalities lack property upkeep rules

by Ashad Hajela of Spotlight PA State College |

Map of municipal property maintenance codes in Pennsylvania produced by Center for Rural Pennsylvania researchers.
Used with permission from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania

A version of this story first appeared in Talk of the Town, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau featuring the most important news and happenings in north-central Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.

A widespread lack of property maintenance codes in rural Pennsylvania has worsened living conditions and stalled investment in those communities, according to a new state study.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, which serves the General Assembly, found that 89% of the state’s 1,592 rural municipalities “have not adopted property maintenance codes,” even though 1,201 rural municipalities follow the Uniform Construction Code, a set of widely adopted construction standards.

“It contributes to the poverty cycle,” Claire Jantz, one of the study’s authors and a geography professor at Shippensburg University, told Spotlight PA. When homes are not properly maintained, the value never appreciates, Jantz said.

Data maps produced for the study show that municipalities without property codes have worse housing quality, though researchers hadn’t specifically evaluated whether there was a correlation.

The study also found that people living in urban areas were 24% more likely to be approved for home improvement loans than rural residents.

A higher amount of low-quality housing makes it harder to attract businesses, and can be a barrier to investment in communities, Jantz said. And property maintenance codes provide a standard that, if followed, can improve local living conditions, and stir local commerce.

Ideally, property maintenance codes ensure that a property is safe and maintains a certain level of appearance. Codes should have detailed specifications for electrical wiring, water leakage, roof and window conditions, air conditioning, and heating, said Ying Yang, the study’s co-author and a sociology professor at Shippensburg University.

Of the rural municipalities that do have property maintenance codes, 112 have adopted the International Property Maintenance Code, 10 have adopted guidelines from the Building Officials and Code Administrators International, and 53 have enacted their own local ordinances.

Rural municipalities often don’t have the funding and staff resources to create property maintenance codes, Yang said — and local elected officials may be concerned about their ability to enforce penalties, she added.

For Penn Township, in Clearfield County, the challenge with implementing property maintenance codes stems from enforcement.

“We’re a very small township,” Secretary Annette Prisk said. “We’re struggling just to even maintain our roads.”

The study rated Penn Township in the second worst category for housing quality. Researchers, according to the study, considered the condition of properties’ grounds, structure, windows and doors, building exterior, and roof.

Map of housing quality in Pennsylvania.
Used with permission from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania
Map of housing quality in Pennsylvania.

Prisk said, for the most part, she doesn’t think housing quality is an issue in the township, though there are some properties she hopes the owners will clean up. But she doesn’t think property maintenance codes will help.

“The problem is that people in the area have a low income,” she said, “and don’t make enough money to maintain their property.”

The researchers also surveyed who owned the properties and found many of the homes that are poorly maintained are not owner-occupied.

“As long as the buildings are rented, and [landlords] are collecting money, they don’t really care about the quality of the house,” Yang said.

Because it’s up to each individual municipality, property maintenance codes themselves can vary drastically across rural regions of the state.

“It’s just incredibly fragmented,” Jantz said.

Ashad Hajela is a Report for America corps member and writes about rural affairs for Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau.

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