METHUEN — When the city’s Building Safety Task Force was first assembled 15 years ago, only a few dozen abandoned homes, shuttered businesses and otherwise nuisance properties were on its radar.
But the problem grew consistently worse and eventually exploded after the great recession and resulting foreclosure crisis.
“We were completely behind the eight ball,” said Methuen Community Development Director William Buckley. “These things were popping up every day.
“The city was in the midst of a crisis. We had dozens of vacant properties without a strong infrastructure to deal with them. We spent a lot of time being reactive in 2012.”
Early last year, Methuen’s blighted and vacant properties became the target of a City Council featuring six new members. Newly-elected Mayor Stephen Zanni also made the issue a priority. With the Building Safety Task Force reinvigorated as a result, Buckley said the city put on a “full-court press” in 2012 to identify the extent of the problem and develop strategies to address it.
“The word gets out that the city is starting to get aggressive,” said Buckley. “It seems to have a snowball effect.”
In June 2012, Buckley said the task force was monitoring around 100 vacant or abandoned residential properties in the city. They’ve since whittled the list down to about 80 by pressuring property owners in a number of ways.
Banks and management companies now must register all abandoned or vacant buildings with the city. As a result, City Hall has collected more than $31,000 in registration fees to date, Buckley said.
Unsecured properties have also been boarded up. In about a half dozen instances, Buckley said the city stepped in and did the work when banks or management companies wouldn’t respond. Tax liens were then issued to cover the expense.
With the help of Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, Methuen has also started a receivership program for trouble properties. Several land court cases are now under way in an effort to collect back taxes from property owners.
The overall goal of the task force is to get vacant properties occupied again and collect any back taxes owed. Now with momentum on their side, Buckley and City Council Chairman Sean Fountain expect the task force to accomplish even more in 2013.
“I think we made some good progress,” said Fountain, who also serves on the task force. “The group sees that we want to be aggressive and make some changes rapidly.”
Inside Buckley’s City Hall office, a large map of Methuen is dotted with properties the task force is monitoring. While trouble areas appear in small clusters, there is no discernible epicenter.
The foreclosure epidemic did not discriminate between urban and affluent sections of the city.
“This crisis was sort of equal opportunity,” said Buckley. “We had properties on Morgan Drive, which some would argue is one of the nicest streets in all of Methuen.”
The work of the task force and the city’s building and health inspectors is not easy. City officials have said each property has a different back story and must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
Among the properties to see a positive change:
48 Meriline Ave.: Vacant since July 2010; hole in roof for two years; demolished Dec. 3 after it was deemed uninhabitable.
10 Meriline Ave.: Vacant since January 2009; severely overgrown trees and shrubs made the house barely visible from the street, but the lot was cleaned up in December and the home boarded up by the bank that owns it.
192 Merrimack St.: Vacant since July 2008; overgrown lot and reports of squatters; cleaned up in late November.
423 Broadway: Vacant since August 2008; reports of rodents, squatters and missing copper pipes; the city boarded it up and with the help of the attorney general is working with the owners to schedule a clean up.
There are limits to what the city can do. Last week, City Solicitor Peter McQuillan told city councilors that the city can only take action when there is a safety or health hazard. Sometimes unmowed grass is only an aesthetic problem, he said.
But City Councilor Tom Ciulla, who works as a health inspector for the city of Everett, said Methuen needs to ramp up its enforcement of the state sanitary code by introducing tougher ordinances.
“The city of Methuen needs to be cleaned up,” said Ciulla. “You need to take care of your property. If you don’t clean it, we’ll take you to court.”
Fountain too believes the city’s most powerful tool is enforcement of the state sanitary code. He also wants to establish an abandoned property hotline so residents can call the city when a home or business falls into disrepair.
“I think that would go a long way,” said Fountain.
Buckley said the city’s enforcement will increase this spring. He said the biggest complaint from abutters every year is overgrown lawns.
“We’re not satisfied,” said Buckley. “We want to make sure that we don’t let it get ahead of us this year.”