By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — City Councilors agree that Haverhill needs to do more to clean up abandoned and dilapidated homes and crack down on run-away owners. However, they aren’t very impressed with Mayor James Fiorentini’s plan to get the job done.
The mayor proposes requiring owners of abandoned buildings to pay $250 to register them with the city, and to fine those who don’t comply up to $300 a week. Owners, usually a bank or similar entity that holds a mortgage on the property, also would be required to provide contact information for a person or company in charge of maintaining the property. Failing to do so would trigger fines, too.
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,” the mayor said.
The council reviewed the proposal last night and scheduled a vote for June 4. In the meantime, its Administration and Finance Committee will meet May 30 to get input from the public and suggest changes.
Councilor Michael Hart said the intention of the measure is good, but that he believes it would be ineffective.
”Only responsible owners are going to come forward to pay the $250 to register their homes,” Hart said. “The ones who won’t comply are the ones we can’t find now. We’ll make some money with the registration fee, but we’ll still have the same problem with abandoned buildings that we don’t know about. All this will do is create another level of bureaucracy.”
Councilor William Macek noted many abandoned properties are owned by banks outside Massachusetts, or even the United States. He said state intervention is the best way to attack the problem.
”We need new state laws to give us more power to deal with this problem locally,” Macek said. “I’m just worried this a feel-good ordinance with no teeth.”
Councilor Michael McGonagle said he is concerned that the mayor’s proposal is overly punitive.
”I also want to protect the resident who is down on their luck and help them keep their home,” McGonagle said.
Recent estimates have suggested there are anywhere from 50 to 100 abandoned homes in the city.
Fiorentini said his proposal is mirrored after similar and successful ordinances 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 some owners to court to get judges to appoint receivers to take control of abandoned properties. Receivers then pay for repairs and maintenance and they are reimbursed when the property is sold.
The process of having a receiver appointed can take up to two years, however, 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.”
After hearing the concerns of councilors, the mayor said he’s willing to consider lowering or waiving the registration fee in some cases. He said the fines are critical to the measure’s success, however.
Fiorentini brought several residents with him to the meeting who wanted to tell councilors about their experiences living next to abandoned homes. President Robert Scatamacchia said he would not let them speak until the council is ready to vote in two weeks.
In an interview outside the meeting, Michael Zangari of 347 Primrose St. said he’s been living next door to an abandoned home at 342 Primrose St. for 18 months. He said it’s overgrown with weeds and infested with rodents.
”I pay some of the highest taxes in my neighborhood and I take care of property whether I have the money to do it or not,” Zangari said. “Something has to be done to speed up the process of dealing with these homes.”
Councilor William Ryan said the easiest way to deal with abandoned homes is to get judges to let the city demolish them. He said the city had success with this approach when he was mayor in the 1980s.
”Some were nice buildings and it was a shame to tear them down,” Ryan said. “But that’s what it took to get their attention that we were serious.”
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. Hart led the opposition back then also.