Shenandoah residents renovate old, unoccupied properties
Mar. 18—SHENANDOAH — Sandra Valdez's home at 16 S. West St. is a far cry from what it looked like five years ago.
Fully equipped with utilities, furniture and amenities, the residence bears little resemblance to its dilapidated, debris-filled state when Valdez acquired it.
Valdez, formerly of Mohnton, Berks County, bought the property in 2018 and commuted nearly every day to Shenandoah to clean, repair and furnish the home.
She now lives there with her mother, two sons and two nephews.
"You have to do a lot of things, but it's worth it," she said.
Built in 1922, the five-bedroom home is one of dozens of aging properties in Shenandoah that residents have purchased, restored and renovated in recent years.
Borough Manager Tony Sajone said renovation of properties is a "blessing" that is reinvigorating the borough.
"A lot of these properties have been abandoned for so long," he said. "Now, you have people coming in, actually fixing them up really nice, putting some money into it, and they're back on the tax roll, where they hadn't been for how long.
"It's a boom to the town," he added. "It's bringing a lot of diversity into the town."
Cost of living attraction
Though the house was not remotely habitable when she bought it, Valdez was determined to convert it into a suitable home for herself and her family.
Over the next few years, they installed new floors, an upscale kitchen and plumbing, heating and electrical systems.
While her home has improved significantly since its early days, she said the transformation is not yet complete. Over the next few months, she plans to install more drywall and windows, and finish painting the walls, as well as expand the heating system.
She expects work on the interior of the house to be completed by the end of the summer. Meanwhile, she will need to install new siding on the facade, which currently consists of a single layer of plywood sheathing.
Valdez owns another property, at 14 S. West St., which she plans to repair in the coming years. This property, she said, resembles the state of her current home when she acquired it in 2018.
With debris, litter and scattered flecks of paint and ceiling tile on the floors, the house is a clear work-in-progress.
Like many other Shenandoah residents, Valdez said, she found her properties on the Schuylkill County tax claim repository list.
"That's how I did it," she said. "I bought two for $4,000, or $2,000 each."
Over the past two years, Valdez has noticed a surge of residents, landlords and business owners purchasing and repairing old properties in Shenandoah, some of which have been unoccupied for decades.
She said she was drawn to Shenandoah by its low taxes and cost of living, as well as its relative peace and quiet, which she believes is ideal for a family environment.
"I knew I was going to be a homeowner, and that's what I looked for," she said.
After looking through the repository list, she ultimately bought the two South West Street homes and immediately set to work on repairing them.
Though it has taken more than four years to reach this point, with countless hours spent on labor, travel and planning, Valdez has not looked back.
"You have to be prepared," she said. "Unless you have money in the bank, it's going to take time ... but it's worth it."
Jobs and housing
Although residents typically find the homes on the repository list, they can also buy properties through upset sales and judicial sales administered by the Tax Claim Bureau.
Sajone said that when a resident buys a property, they must obtain a certificate of disclosure.
Residents who intend to conduct minor renovations or rehabilitation on a property will then obtain a property maintenance permit from the borough.
Any requests for structural changes, however, will be referred to Building Inspectors Underwriters of PA, which acts as a consultant for the borough.
"You have to hand in your plans to them, they take it to their engineers to look into it, and then they allow you to go forward," Sajone said.
Afterward, residents must receive a final inspection and obtain an occupancy permit if they intend to live in the property.
Sajone said many of the people buying abandoned properties are workers who have found new jobs and are looking to settle in the area.
He noticed that the phenomenon began gaining traction in mid-2020, around the beginning of his tenure as borough manager.
"Right around when I came in, it just started going crazy with people buying (properties)," said Sajone, noting that more than 100 properties have been sold over the past year.
In the past, Sajone said, Shenandoah struggled with a lack of job opportunities, leading many people to move out of the borough and leaving many properties vacant.
However, a recent surge of employers — including in nearby industrial parks and warehouses — have led many people to seek homes in the area, he said.
"You have the workforce, but you also need to house them, which is a big part of it here," Sajone said.
Valdez, who works at the Wegmans Distribution Center in Highridge Business Park, also noted the wealth of job prospects in the area, which she said is a draw to other residents, like herself, who are considering moving.
"There's a lot of work out here," she said.
With a larger tax base, the borough has funds to provide more services.
"Hopefully, more businesses will be opening up," Sajone said.
Shenandoah Tax Collector Donna Kulpowicz said tax revenues have increased significantly over the past two years due to the properties.
"We've added over 300 people to the borough's per capita (tax rolls) over the last year and a half," she said.
She noted that many of the people purchasing the properties are from other areas, such as Hazleton and New York, and they fix up the properties with the intent to rent them.
Valdez said the borough not only gains tax revenue, but saves money when it doesn't have to tend to or demolish dilapidated buildings.
"We come here, we fix the houses, we pay taxes on the houses, we're working here, we're paying taxes for living here," she said. "So, the more people that come, hopefully they'll have more money."
Not just homes
As Valdez works to refurbish her homes, other residents are doing the same.
Shenandoah resident and entrepreneur Belkys Ogando, originally from the Dominican Republic, is working on a handful of properties. She is the owner of Merengue Cakes & Deli, a new Dominican-inspired eatery at 107 N. Main St.
After moving to Shenandoah, Ogando saw the vacant property and had a "vision" to repurpose it as a restaurant.
She opened her deli in late 2021, and it has attracted scores of customers due in part to its location on the borough's main thoroughfare.
"It feels like the people (in Shenandoah) have welcomed us," Ogando said. "They're very pleasant."
In addition to her restaurant, Ogando is renovating a pair of properties on Bower and Coal streets that she plans to rent.
"If we fix this town with all these houses, it has a lot of potential," she said. "I want to be part of this and help rebuild the town."
She added that Shenandoah's "quiet," unassuming quality lends itself well to such ventures, and she sees the town as a potential hotspot for other entrepreneurs, like herself, whose businesses cater to the Hispanic and Latino communities.
"I wanted to invite people to come live here, because the houses here are cheap," she said. "And I want to make sure the people that I recommend to come live here are good people."
Fixing the town
When Valdez purchased the property at 16 S. West St. in 2018, she knew it would involve a great deal of work to turn it into a habitable residence.
The house, which she believes had been vacant for 20 years, was not in "livable" condition when she acquired it, she said.
"It was really bad," Valdez said. "But paycheck by paycheck, we fixed it, and then we moved in there. It still needs a lot of work, but at least I know I don't have to pay mortgage or rent."
The first step in the process, she said, involved renting a dumpster to dispose of all the debris and waste scattered around the property.
With the help of her two nephews, she eventually cleared the property and started making modifications, using part of her savings from each paycheck to fund the endeavor.
After four years of repairs, she and her family finally moved into the home in July.
Although she and her five family members live comfortably in their current home, her mother and two nephews will move into 14 S. West St. once that property is completed.
Eventually, they plan to connect the two houses and convert them into a single home.
Valdez noted that such an undertaking involves a considerable sacrifice of time and resources.
Over the past five years, she said, she has had little downtime between all the hours spent working on the properties. She rarely, if ever, socializes anymore, preferring to stay at home and continue the renovation work.
"You have to give up a lot of things when you're doing this, because it's never-ending," she said.
Though the work can be difficult, Valdez often thinks of all the other residents in town who are in the same situation and engaged in the same activity. She feels a sense of satisfaction when she thinks of what might become of their efforts.
"In a couple of years, this whole town could be fixed," she said. "I can see it."
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