EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 3, 2013

City poised for attack on abandoned homes

Council to vote on plan affecting dozens of buildings

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — A proposal by Mayor James Fiorentini to clean up abandoned and dilapidated homes and crack down on owners appears headed for City Council approval.

Owners — often a bank or similar entity that holds a mortgage on the property — would be required to pay $250 to register abandoned homes with the city. They would also be subject to fines of up $300 per week for failing to register, or if they fail to provide basic maintenance on their property once it is uninhabited.

However, under a compromise between Fiorentini and the council’s Administration and Finance Committee, city inspectors would have discretion to waive those fees and fines in certain circumstances, such if the owner has suffered financial hardship or died and the property is in probate court. That is according to Councilor Colin LePage, chairman of the council’s Administration and Finance Committee.

LePage said the mayor has also agreed that money from the registration fee and fines would go into a special fund to pay for a city inspector whose main job would be to identify abandoned buildings and monitor compliance with the new rules. Previously, revenue from the program was to go into the city’s general fund, which is under the mayor’s control.

The proposal also requires owners to provide contact information for a person or company in charge of maintaining abandoned property.

LePage said his committee unanimously endorsed the amended ordinance at a meeting Thursday night. He said he expects it to come up for a vote of the full council at tomorrow’s meeting at 7 p.m. in City Hall.

Fiorentini said recent estimates suggest there are anywhere from 50 to 100 abandoned homes in the city. The new program will help the city obtain a more accurate count, he said.

Under the proposed ordinance, homes would be considered legally abandoned once they are vacant for 90 days and the owner has no plans to return.

“These abandoned homes run down property values for everyone in the neighborhood at the same time that they are increasing their insurance costs,” Fiorentini said.

At a recent meeting, councilors raised concerns that the mayor’s ordinance would be difficult to enforce and that the fines and registration fee might be excessive for some property owners who are in tough financial shape. LePage said those concerns appear to have been addressed in the compromise.

Fiorentini said similar ordinances have been successful in curbing the problem of abandoned and dilapidated homes in Methuen, Lynn and Lowell.

“The only way we can identify these abandoned homes now is when neighbors call us,” the mayor said. “But when we send letters to the bank that owns the property, they ignore us. This will allow us to start fining them. That’s what banks respond to.”

Fiorentini said the city has had some success using other methods to handle the problem, such as taking owners to court where judges appoint receivers to take control of abandoned properties. Receivers then pay for repairs and maintenance, and are reimbursed when the property is sold.

But the process of having a receiver appointed can take up to two years, the mayor said.

We’ve been able to get seven homes into receivership in two years,” he said. “It’s a great program, but we need additional tools to make it happen faster.”

The council rejected a similar proposal from the mayor in 2009, with several councilors saying they did not believe it would be effective and that it was too broad, overly complicated and legally unenforceable as written.