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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – It’s a new state law, aimed at eradicating blight.
But one local businessman says the law is being used to take his property out from under him, and reap the benefits of his hard work.
He says your property could be next.
You don’t get any more Pittsburgh than Jimmy Coen — better known as Jimmy Yinzer — born and raised in Lawrenceville and the owner of Yinzer’s sports jerseys and sweatshirts in The Strip District. Four years ago, he bought an abandoned bar in his old neighborhood. But Coen says his dream of bringing it back might be snatched away from him.
“I walked by here every day growing up,” he said. “Now, I own it. Now somebody wants to come by and take it for their own profit.”
In the past few years, Coen has suffered personal tragedies — the death of his son and more recently the death of his business partner. But he says he’s worked steadily on the building.
So he was shocked in November to be served with a lawsuit from the Allegheny County Development Corporation. It accused him of neglecting and abandoning a now blighted property and has petitioned the court to take it over.
“They say, well, you know what? There’s no way in the world that that could happen in America. It just doesn’t work like that,” he said.
Allegheny County Development is actually a private non-profit using a relatively new state law allowing it to petition the court to seize blighted properties.
Its president, Josh Caldwell, is a real estate investor who has flipped more than a 100 houses and buildings for profit. He says he formed this non-profit to rid neighborhoods of blighted properties and says Coen’s bar is one.
“If you see a roof that’s collapsing, brickwork that needs pointing, that’s blight,” Caldwell said.
While court records show Coen has satisfied three code violations on the outside, Coen says he’s mostly worked on the inside. These before and after pictures show he’s taken the walls down to the studs, repointed the brickwork, put in new joists and rewired the electrical system.
“It’s taking us a little longer than we want it to, but we’ve always been working on it,” Coen said.
When asked if he’s seen what Coen has done on the outside of the building, Caldwell said, “I can identify blight from the outside.”
But in court papers responding to the suit, Coen’s attorney turned the tables on Caldwell saying his non-profit “exists to masquerade as a public agency of Allegheny County with a purpose to siphon real estate equity from property owners under the guise of redevelopment of blighted and abandoned properties”
In addition to Coen’s bar, Caldwell is seeking to take over a property in the Mexican War Streets on the North Side, and a property in Oakland. Both, like Lawrenceville, are neighborhoods with swiftly rising real estate values.
“This act could be used in Braddock or Rankin or McKees Rocks or Mckeesport. Towns where they are struggling with whole blocks that need to be rehabilitated,” Joe Mistick, Coen’s attorney said. “That’s exactly what this was designed for.”
Next month, a judge will decide if Coen can keep his bar or whether he has to turn it over to a so-called conservator.