EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

April 5, 2014

Cities use court receivers to clean up derelict properties

BOSTON – Tall grass and bushes envelop a three-story, faded yellow house on Hazel Street in Salem. Old tires, trash and debris are strewn along the sides of the building -- attracting rats and insects, neighbors say.

Tax liens and code enforcement fines have mounted over time, according to property records and city officials. Neighbors said they’ve complained to City Hall but nothing changes.

Cities and towns across Massachusetts are pockmarked with vacant houses and commercial buildings, many of which fell victim to the housing crisis. Derelict properties have dragged down real estate values in urban and suburban neighborhoods, in some cases attracting crime and vagrants, municipal leaders say.

In Salem, officials may soon employ a tool that other Bay State cities have used to keep vacant secure and presentable: a receiver. The triple-decker on Hazel Street, city officials say, is one of about a dozen buildings on their list.

“At some point, issuing tickets is no longer a remedy,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll. “We have a few properties where there is no clear chain of ownership, and they’ve become health and safety hazards. All it takes is one eyesore to drag down the whole neighborhood.”

Driscoll said one option for the city is to participate in an Attorney General’s Office program that provides lawyers and resources to track down landowners and force them to clean up or sell dilapidated properties.

Communities pay nothing to join the Abandoned Housing Initiative. Local officials turn over documents on properties to the attorney general’s office, which tries to contact owners.

Failing an agreement, a court-appointed receiver is unleashed with authority to hire contractors to clean and fix up a property, then impose liens on the owner to cover their costs.

If the owners can’t pay, the property can be auctioned.

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