EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 5, 2013

Council OKs abandoned homes registry, new fines

Hart: Program will make the city money, but won't solve problem

By Shawn Regan
sregan@eagletribune.com

---- — HAVERHILL — Dozens and potentially hundreds of owners who have abandoned their homes will be getting letters and bills from the city within the next few weeks.

City Council at last night’s meeting approved Mayor James Fiorentini’s proposal requiring absentee owners — often a bank or similar entity that holds a mortgage on the property — to pay $250 to register their building with the city. The owners are also now subject to fines of up $300 per week if they don’t register, or if they fail to provide basic maintenance on their property once it is uninhabited.

The council, which rejected a similar measure from the mayor in 2009 and had raised several concerns about the proposal recently, passed the ordinance unanimously.

Even Councilor Michael Hart, a critic of the proposal, voted for it. But only after he raised several objections.

Hart said the ordinance will generate some much-needed money for the Inspectional Services Department, but won’t solve the city’s abandoned homes problem.

“People who think this is going to do something about abandoned and distressed homes in their neighborhood are going to be disappointed,” said Hart, a lawyer and former city solicitor. “What might happen is that the owner of the building might give the city some registration money and maybe pay the fines, but that’s about it. This (ordinance) is legally flawed, not enforceable and based on false assumptions.”

Hart said he voted for the ordinance anyway it because the city’s Inspectional Services Department desperately needs revenue and another inspector. In a compromise that led to the council’s support, Fiorentini agreed that all revenue and fines from the program will go into a special fund to pay for an additional city inspector.

Previously, revenue from the program was to go into the city’s general fund, which is under the mayor’s control.

The mayor has said there are between 50 and 100 problem abandoned homes in the city. But a list put out by the state Attorney General’s Office shows there are 305 homes in the city that are in the process of being foreclosed upon. Most of those homes are likely abandoned, but not all of them, Fiorentini said.

“Come tomorrow, 305 owners will be getting a call looking for money and the city will bring in maybe $75,000,” Hart said. “When the mayor says this has worked in other cities, basically what he means is it is bringing in money in other cities and we are missing out.”

The mayor has been pushing the measure as another tool to help the city clean up abandoned and dilapidated properties, which he said runs down property values for neighbors. He said he receives regular complaints from residents about abandoned homes and that it is a problem the city has struggled to solve for many years.

Under the compromise, city inspectors will have discretion to waive registration fees and fines in certain circumstances, such if the owner has suffered an illness, financial hardship or has died and the property is in probate court.

The ordinance, which takes effect immediately, also requires owners to provide contact information for a person or company in charge of maintaining abandoned property.

“It’s not a panacea,” the mayor said. “But it’s another tool. Many people will register their building voluntarily and it will help us with this problem.”

Similar ordinances have been successful in Methuen, Lynn and Lowell, the mayor said.