EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 21, 2013

City takes aim at abandoned homes

Proposal would fund registry with $250 fee; impose $300-a-week fine on scofflaws

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — Mayor James Fiorentini is proposing new rules to help inspectors identify and spruce up abandoned homes, including hefty fines against banks and other run-away owners who fail to maintain their property.

The ordinance would require owners of abandoned buildings to pay $250 to register them with the city and allow the city 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, would also be required to provide contact information for a maintenance person or company in charge of maintaining the property. Failing to do so would also trigger fines.

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

Abandoned and dilapidated buildings are considered a leading cause of urban blight that can cause aesthetics and property values in infected neighborhoods to plummet.

The number of abandoned homes in the city has soared during the long real estate and economic slump that began several years ago, the mayor said. Recent estimates have suggested there are anywhere from 50 to 100 in the city, but Fiorentini said there could be many more.

“One of the reasons for the registry is to get a better estimate of how many there are,” he said.

Fiorentini said the $250 registration fee would be used to pay for inspectors to watch over and find abandoned buildings, and bring them into compliance with the ordinance. A similar program in Lowell has generated $700,000 in fees for its Inspectional Services Department, the mayor said.

Fiorentini said complaints from residents brought the issue to a head.

”Protecting residents, their homes and our neighborhoods is a priority of my administration,” he said. “One vacant and rundown home can ruin a neighborhood. Renovating vacant properties and making them part of a thriving neighborhood is my goal.”

The mayor said the city has had recent success with convincing judges to assign receivers to take control of abandoned homes in the city. In those scenarios, receivers typically pay for repairs and maintenance, and they are reimbursed when the property is sold.

”Our showcase example is a home on Fifth Avenue that was fixed by a receiver and recently sold to a family,” Fiorentini said. “We want to see more of that, but for it to happen we need to know where the abandoned properties are.”

City Council, which rejected a similar proposal from the mayor in 2009, is scheduled to consider the new version at tonight’s meeting.

Back in 2009, councilors who opposed Fiorentini’s proposal said they did not believe it would be effective and that it was too broad, overly complicated and legally unenforceable as written. They also said there are state laws that can help the city battle the problem.

”It’s an important issue because one bad building can bring down a whole neighborhood,” Councilor William Macek said. “But I’m against creating regulations that are unenforceable. I’m going to have to be convinced that we can enforce this and that we have the manpower to enforce it.”

Macek said owners are unlikely to notify the city or take care of a building they have abandoned just because some ordinance says they are supposed to.

“Foreclosure is not a voluntary process,” Macek said. “People generally do it because they are having financial problems, so it’s highly unlikely they are going to pay for upkeep and have the grass mowed ... We have more than enough unenforceable ordinances on the books. We don’t need any more. But if it’s written well and it’s enforceable, I’ll consider it.”

The mayor said there’s plenty of teeth in his new proposal. He said it has been re-worked to address concerns councilors had with his first attempt.

”If it’s legally vacant for 90 days or more, we will start fining the owner, which is usually a bank,” he said. “And if we have to make repairs on our own, this will let us get that money back when the property is sold.”