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West Chester Contractor Aiding in Pottstown Renovations

Governments in Pottstown, Pa., a borough hard hit by the economic downturn, partnered to give public school students hands-on job skills while they renovate and market an abandoned house that would otherwise rot and help deplete the town's tax income.

Nestled near the banks of Pottstown’s Manatawny Creek, 22 East 2nd Street sits in the soft, cold rain. The house -- built of sturdy red brick topped with slate gray roofs and pearly new trim -- its single-car garage and yard seem an attractive property in the borough. 

Until the front door is opened.

Abandoned by its inhabitants, who apparently couldn’t pay the utility bills, the structure is rotting from the inside out and buried in debris including everything from empty 40-ounce malt liquor bottles to piles of moldy clothes. The floors and walls are haggard and filthy. 

A faded, worn apology note, perhaps from its tenants, is nailed to the wall near a staircase. 

"We did not mean to leave your house this way," it reads.

The property, a symbol of the sick economy and sheriff sale process that burdens the borough and other municipalities across the U.S., is a carcass that chokes a town desperately seeking to rebound.

 -- which covers about 5.5 square miles and includes around 23,000 people -- roughly 18 months ago started to collect delinquent water and sewer fees, said the borough’s manager . 

"As part of that process, this process for sheriff sales is available to us,” Bobst said of the borough’s attempt to recoup fees. 

When a property is not purchased at sheriff sale, the next step is to deem it “free and clear,” he said. 

“Which (means) the property goes up for sale (with) no liens, no debts on it,” he said. “When no one bids on the property, (it) becomes property of the person forcing the sale.”

And that’s how the borough took possession of 22 East 2nd Street.

The Pottstown property is far from alone. It is a local microcosm of a larger problem.

Nationally, rental vacancies peaked in 2009 at 10.6 percent with homeowners hitting 2.8 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The organization's records put those figures as the high water marks since yearly statistics began in 1980. 

But there may be a break on the horizon. Those numbers have improved -- to 9.5 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively -- in 2011. CNN Money notes an increase in foreclosures in the first month of 2012, but a 19 percent decline compared to the number of foreclosure filings the year prior. 

Foreclosed homes and those nearing foreclosure accounted for almost a quarter of residential real estate sales at the end of 2011, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. A market for homes like Pottstown's 22 East 2nd Street, in other parts of the country at least, appears to be growing.

Yet the nationwide upward trends meant little to Pottstown's slowly decaying house in the rain.

"It wasn't in the greatest condition," Bobst said. "It's a nice property in the fact that it's a single-family home with a garage - a detached, brick masonry structure. It was a good, solid structure, just a lot of interior work that needed to be done."

Already faced with below median property values for Pennsylvania -- $137,909 compared to $164,700 in 2009, according to city-data.com -- the presence of foreclosed homes puts a strain on Pottstown's real estate market and tax roll.

Pottstown School District Director of Community Relations John Armato has seen firsthand how those numbers trickle down to students.

"The decline of the housing market in the borough has shown itself very clearly," Armato said. "Assessed values of property in Pottstown over the past five years have gone down." 

The decline in value causes an increase in property taxes, said Armato. Meanwhile, shrinking tax income fails to meet the needs of the borough and school district.

That means Pottstown School District faces budget cuts, which ultimately impact students.

The problems are obvious. Pottstown, however, might have the solution, or at the very least, a step forward.

The borough and school district partnered to give students a hands-on education while they renovate the blighted house at 22 East 2nd Street.

Since Pottstown High School hosts its own vocational program, rather than send its students to an outside facility, Bobst and Pottstown School District Supt. Reed Lindley realized they could work together and eliminate two concerns.

"In talking with Dr. Lindley, we wanted to find a way to get the high school kids more involved in the community," Bobst said. "When you look at the surrounding municipalities and the surrounding school districts, they send their kids to (vocational-technical) schools, which are the separate buildings that have the nice facilities. While we had the (vocational-technical) program at Pottstown, we don't have those same facilities. So we were trying to find a way to make Pottstown kind of the lab, so to speak, for the students. And we felt that the house at 22 East 2nd Street was a viable option for them."

Armato praised the collaborative effort between the borough and district. 

"This is an excellent example of a community coming together and saying, 'We've got to take care of ourselves,'" Armato said.

With the designated project in sight, students in Pottstown's Construction Technology three-year program started to plan the remodel project for 22 East 2nd Street with a half-year in the school’s shop learning basic safety and tool operation.

Today, as juniors and seniors, the students will apply those skills in the real world as they rehabilitate the borough house.

Pottstown looks to tap the high school's other talents as well. After the construction dust settles, the district's marketing program will help sell the 2nd Street house. 

"We're in a partnership with the borough," said Danielle McCoy, director of career and technical education for the district. "The Pottstown Education Foundation secured a loan.”

Those funds will provide all materials and subcontracting work on the house, she said. 

“But all of the labor is free through the students, which is great because the students are getting hands-on, real world training instead of in the shop,” McCoy said. 

The district found a foreman for the project in Jim Brazill. Tall and built, dark hair cropped neat near his head, Brazill directed his students with the congenial authority of an educator as they arrived to begin another day of work. A private contractor based out of West Chester, Brazill enjoys teaching kids the tools of the trade that allowed him to start his own firm, JMB Custom Renovations.

"It kind of just happened," Brazill said. "It wasn't like it was something I was looking for, but I enjoy it. Teaching the kids what I do … they're getting first-hand experience in what I do for a living."

While the renovation project’s real world education benefit is evident, for students, the house is also a matter of pride.

"I live right down the road," said senior Zach Magyar. "It's a good neighborhood."

The excitement in Magyar's tone was infectious as he lead a tour of the house, which was in frightful condition when they first saw it.

"We cleaned it up and stripped out a lot of stuff," Magyar said. He and his classmates will complete most of the work on the house, excluding the structure’s heating system. 

"We (leveled) the floors in the kitchen and bathroom because they were all messed up," he said. "We ran almost all the electric."

The house is a training ground for almost all aspects of residential construction. 

"What the kids learn here is basic carpentry, framing," Brazill said. "A little bit of fine carpentry, trim and stuff like that. We learn plumbing, electric and also masonry. They do block laying and brick laying a little bit. This house, we're actually going to get to go a little further. We're going to do a little bit of roofing; some of the kids are finishing drywall now. These are all things that usually they wouldn't be able to get a chance to do. But with this opportunity, they get the whole, from top to bottom, finishing an entire house."

Brazill gave the senior students their own individual rooms, allowing them to work almost as independent contractors. 

Magyar was eager to show off the upstairs bathroom, his own pet project. 

"There's a lot of pride in doing something like this," Magyar said. "Knowing you can go into somebody's house and handle anything or being able to help your friends and family."

Hopefully, the house project will be finished by the end of the school year so the students can see their hard work pay off before they go their separate ways. 

McCoy is already amazed by the progress she has seen.

"When I was here last week you could see the bathroom right here," McCoy said from just inside the front door, pointing at the ceiling. "There was no subfloor, no nothing. There was no bathroom either, but you could see the kids up there working on the bathroom. They're really making nice progress … they're really doing nice work."

The joint goal for the borough and district, according to McCoy, is to put the property back on the tax roll and have enough funding to move onto another house. 

"Which benefits the whole community," McCoy said.

More than a renovation, the borough and school district have begun a different process as well - one of rehabilitation. 

"Last year, their project was they built a shed," McCoy said. "And that's nice. We sold the shed and that was nice. But this is so much more significant than that. These kids live in this town, some of them live right around here, so they get to see how that gives back to their community."

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