The problems facing former steel towns like Monessen can seem overwhelming. When I typed the word Monessen into my recording software, the auto-correct feature kept changing the name to “nonessential.”
The small town about an hour south of Pittsburgh in Westmoreland County is a place that has felt nonessential for a long time. In 1986, the big Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel plant closed, stripping the area of about one thousand jobs and a lot more people.
But some believe in a brighter future for Monessen, such as the town’s 30-year-old mayor, Matthew Shorraw, who was first elected in 2017.
“Real estate has been selling like crazy,” says Shorraw. Last month, 27 properties sold while the average is typically 11.
The city of 7,500 people — it used to have 20,000 residents — has about 400 abandoned properties, Shorraw notes. But it’s a cheap place to live, and housing is abundant. That’s an advantage when the country is facing a national housing shortage of a kind that hasn’t been seen in decades.
“If we could get more people into some of these vacant houses to start fixing them, it would relieve the tax burden on people, it would solve the blight problem, it would solve community apathy, ” says Shorraw.
While some of the old houses in Monessen are in a state of collapse, with fallen porches and roofs, most of them have good bones, Shorraw points out. “They don’t build houses like that anymore, with that kind of character,” he adds.
There are also newer houses from a building boom in the 1950s-60s, split-level homes and ranches like you see in the South Hills. They tend to be in good shape and have been selling well.
With so many working remotely these days, there’s a chance for small cities like Monessen to find their footing. So Shorraw began thinking of a way to make his community more appealing to homebuyers, focusing on the 817 tax-delinquent properties in town.
So here’s the deal: If you commit to renovating the tax-delinquent property and you can get the property owner to turn over the title to you, Monessen will forgive the back taxes.
In some cases, those taxes could be as high as $40,000.
“That’s a pretty big barrier for people,” says Shorraw. “They’re not going to want to put that much money into it when it’s not worth that in the first place. So we’re taking that barrier away.”
Prices are “all over the board” for houses, says Shorraw, but “there is nothing that would sell for more than $200,000.”
Vacant houses can be had for as low as $2,000 to $5,000. Empty lots have sold for as little as $500. One house that was featured on the popular Instagram page Cheap Old Houses was listed for $50,000, and it sold immediately.
“The nicer stuff has been selling recently for more than the asking price, which hasn’t happened before,” says Shorraw.
Joshua Lindsey is one of the people buying into Monessen, working mainly on rehabbing commercial buildings Downtown. A formerly vacant structure he rehabbed now houses a tattoo and CBD shop along with apartments.
“I’m just finishing my second right now, and trying to acquire a third,” says Lindsey. “And I helped a friend out to buy one, and his brother’s buying one.”
What’s the appeal? “There are a lot of good quality buildings here,” he says. “The brickwork is, like, incredible. The price is cheap and the buildings are nice. You just have to be able to see the final product, and see the long-term work (needed).”
There’s more to Monessen than first meets the eye. There are 10 city parks, for instance, a lot for a city this size. There’s a boat launch on the Monongahela River, and a walkable downtown that’s well-connected to the city’s older neighborhoods, which boast sidewalks.
Mid Mon Valley Transit runs a bus line through town. It’s less than an hour to Pittsburgh, though you’ve got to take Route 51, and “no one likes willingly driving down 51,” Shorraw admits.
And the just-passed American Rescue Plan includes $720,000 for Monessen, says Shorraw, which will be used to pay debts and apply for matching grants for infrastructure improvements. The city’s budget is $4.2 million, so this cash infusion is a big deal.
The young mayor of Monessen
Back in 2016, when Donald Trump famously visited, Shorraw was Monessen’s assistant high school band director. Trump was invited by Democrat Lou Mavrakis — the town’s former mayor — and the event was oddly staged at a recycling center. The headline in a Slate article read: Donald Trump is Literally Giving a Speech in Front of a Pile of Garbage.
Shorraw was outside, protesting against Trump. Ultimately what inspired him to run against the 79-year-old Mavrakis in the Democratic primary were the interviews the former mayor gave to the international news outlets covering Trump’s trip.
“He basically took that time to trash talk the city instead of to talk about what we have to offer,” recalls Shorraw. “So he told one reporter in the Financial Times basically that if ISIS were to come to Monessen, they’d turn around because it looks like it’s already been bombed.”
So Shorraw threw his hat in the race and narrowly won. “It comes with a lot of drama, but it’s worthwhile. I love my hometown,” says the mayor.
Shorraw is a fourth-generation “Monessenite” who lives in his great-grandparents’ house. His grandparents met in a local wire mill in the boom times for local industry during World War II. After finding out they lived a block away from each other, they began making the walk home from work together, and a romance blossomed.