Shaming owners into restoring residences



The house once under construction at 36 Oakwood Ave., between Belgrove Drive and Highland Ave., has stood empty since 2014, now with 2-by-4s propping up the front porch. Its owner is due in court Nov. 10 to deal with property maintenance code violations.

And there’s the once-fashionable residence at 72 Argyle Place, just off Washington Ave., with its front windows boarded up and rear yard pool covered by wood planks. A notice of foreclosure was filed in 2015.

These properties are among an estimated “10 to 15” properties town-wide, that are notable eyesores whose owners/lien-holders/responsible parties the town proposes to publicly shame as caretakers of “abandoned properties,” according to Mayor Alberto Santos.

Ultimately, if those parties fail to fix up or take down those buildings, the town will seek to compel those owners to put up a bond for the cost of the work but, failing that, the town would do the work and bill the owners.

How that would be accomplished is set out in the form of an ordinance, “Abandoned Properties and Rehabilitation Act,” introduced at last week’s meeting of the mayor and Town Council.

Councilwoman Susan McCurrie, who chairs the ordinance committee, said that the national recession left many property owners out on a limb, with their homes “so highly mortgaged, they couldn’t sell,” and their properties ended up with a bank or third-party lien holder.

In many cases, she said, “taxes were being paid but no one was living there,” and the properties ended up “in disrepair, became eyesores,” subject to incursion by vermin and break-ins.

Under the proposed law, McCurrie said, the town would appoint a “public officer,” most likely, an employee from the town Construction Department, to draw up a list of properties meeting the criteria of an “abandoned property” and publish that list, along with the name of the owner of record, “in an official newspaper of the town.”

At the same time, the public officer would notify the property’s owner, and/or “mortgagee, servicing organization, or property tax processing organization” that gets the tax bill for the property about the property’s designation.

McCurrie said that owners and/or lien-holders would have “due process” rights to challenge designation of their properties as “abandoned.”

The responsible party would be given a fixed amount of time to pay all outstanding taxes owed on the property, foreclose on it within six months and/or bring it up to code or post a bond for the projected cost of remediation. If the cost of repairs exceeds the expense of building a new structure, the town can do a “taking” of the property, Santos said.

Santos said the process is intended to encourage owners to fix or sell their properties after being exposed to “public embarrassment.”

An alternate route open to municipalities, the mayor said, is to schedule an “accelerated tax sale” of neglected properties but in such cases, the lien-holder must wait up to two years before he/she can foreclose, which can open the door to more delays in getting the property cleaned up or disposed of.

The proposed ordinance would prevent that from happening, the mayor said.

It’s not that the town would be “going into the real estate business,” McCurrie said, “but we’d be protecting our neighborhoods.”

A property is deemed by the public officer to be “abandoned” in the context of this ordinance if it “has not been legally occupied for a period of six months and … meets any of the following additional criteria”:

It is in need of rehabilitation and no rehabilitation has taken place for six months.

Construction began on it but was discontinued for at least six months, leaving it unsuitable for occupancy.

At least one quarter of property tax on it remains unpaid and delinquent.

It has been determined to be a nuisance due to being unfit for habitation, a fire risk, subject to unauthorized entry, exposed to health and safety hazards due to vermin, overgrown vegetation or physical deterioration, or in dilapidated condition.

A mixed-use property may be considered abandoned if two-thirds or more of its total net square footage was previously legally occupied as residential space and none of that space was legally occupied for at least six months.

The law, Santos said, “gives us an important tool to turns these properties into an asset, not an anchor on the neighborhood.”

A public hearing on the ordinance is slated for next month.


Learn more about the writer ...