Hard-Hit Neighborhoods Struggle With Abandoned Homes
NEAL CONAN, host:
As the economy slowly struggles to recover, foreclosure rates continue to run high. Too many properties abandoned by their owners become structurally unsound, attract squatters, and become targets for vandals. In Webster, Massachusetts, a small town about an hour from Boston, city officials came up with an innovative approach to deal with these eyesores: walls of shame.
If an owner does not comply after the health board issues an order to correct, the town will post the name and contact information of the owner on a four-by-eight-foot sign in front of the property for everybody to see.
So how does your town deal with abandoned properties? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Cathleen Liberty is a health agent for the town of Webster. She inspects nuisance properties along with the building inspector, and joins us now from her office there.
Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Ms. CATHLEEN LIBERTY (Health Agent): Thank you.
CONAN: And what would a property owner have to do to get a wall of shame posted?
Ms. LIBERTY: Well, basically, if the board of health and the building department identifies a nuisance property - a property as a nuisance -and the property owner fails to correct the violations within a specified period of time, the property pretty much is presented to the housing task force, which consists of the town manager, assessor, police, fire and DPD, who will vote whether or not it should be posted on the particular dwelling.
CONAN: And as I understand it, this idea was just broached a week ago, and no signs have yet been posted.
Ms. LIBERTY: No signs have yet been posted.
CONAN: How many properties, though, do you estimate might be eligible?
Ms. LIBERTY: The housing task force has approximately 10 nuisance properties that we are looking at right now. We've conducted inspections on almost all of them, and we plan to post two of the nuisance properties in a few weeks.
CONAN: And are these residential properties?
Ms. LIBERTY: I'm sorry?
CONAN: Are these residential properties?
Ms. LIBERTY: They are residential properties. One of the nuisance property is bank owned, and another is owned by a landowner.
CONAN: And would commercial properties be eligible if they were dilapidated and abandoned?
Ms. LIBERTY: The building inspector may post a commercial property, but it's not considered a nuisance property by the board of health, no.
CONAN: Okay. So this is just applicable to residential areas?
Ms. LIBERTY: Yes, correct.
CONAN: And there's - some people who would say that's because people in those residential areas are worried about their property values.
Ms. LIBERTY: Well, no, it's mainly - if the property is abandoned, vacant or structurally unsound, open to weather, you know, dilapidated porches, et cetera, that's when the board of health or the building department will deem the property unfit or a nuisance. So that's when -is after we send an order to correct letter and the property owner does not comply, then we talk about posting the dwelling.
CONAN: And as I understand it, it's also that this is a considerable expense on the town.
Ms. LIBERTY: It has been in the past. Yes, it has been.
CONAN: What does it cost to keep an eye on these dilapidated properties?
Ms. LIBERTY: We had one property that we identified and brought to the board of selectman that cost the town approximately $9,000 in a six-month period in water charges, police time, the board of health, building, et cetera.
CONAN: And I guess it would be valuable if in front of a property it says, you know, this is owned by Joe Smith, who's failed to correct deficiencies in a timely manner and his number is whatever it is. What if it's the XYZ Corporation?
Ms. LIBERTY: That's fine. They're the owner. They're responsible to maintain the property.
CONAN: But if it's, you know, sort of a faceless corporation with a phone answering machine, it's hard to shame them.
Ms. LIBERTY: It is hard to shame them. And, actually, that's a problem that we're having, trying to get a hold of the owner whether it be bank or realtor or, like I said, a landowner.
CONAN: Have you tried - have you known whether other towns are trying similar kinds of ideas?
Ms. LIBERTY: No, we have not. We have not heard of any other town in our, you know, our region that's tried this.
CONAN: And in terms of foreclosure rates, Massachusetts is really not high on the national list. And could you imagine if you were in Nevada or Florida or Arizona?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LIBERTY: No, I couldn't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: So these houses are real problems?
Ms. LIBERTY: In our area - in our town - the town of Webster, we see a high rate of vacant, abandoned, dilapidated dwellings, very high rate -foreclosure rate is high. And so we're just trying to, you know, take care of these properties and keep them maintained.
CONAN: And as you - do you look forward to the day you can post the first one of these signs?
Ms. LIBERTY: I do.
CONAN: And what do you think is going to be the reaction?
Ms. LIBERTY: Well, there is - I'm not sure of the reaction of the neighborhood or the town. But I do know that some of these properties in residential areas - there are neighbors that have to look at these dilapidated properties. So, on one hand, I'm hoping that the neighbors will reach out and call the owner that's posted and, you know, plead their case, put a little bit of peer pressure on the owner. And I think that it will also show that we're taking a step forward to make improvements in this town and make whoever the owner is responsible for their dwelling.
CONAN: And have you heard from any property owner saying this is an outrage, or either that I'll get right on it and fix it up?
Ms. LIBERTY: No. And we did hold a public hearing before the board of health adopted the regulation and so we gave the landowners opportunity to come in and say no, this is not something that we want and no one showed.
CONAN: Well, good luck to you. Thanks very much for your time.
Ms. LIBERTY: Thank you.
CONAN: Cathleen Liberty, health agent in Webster, Massachusetts. She joined us from her office there.
We want to hear from you. What is your town doing in an attempt to deal with abandoned buildings that can become, well, not just eyesores, but can become dangerous if dilapidated and can also attract squatters. 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com.
Let's talk with Patrick(ph), Patrick with us from Richmond.
PATRICK (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATRICK: Yes. I live in Richmond. I live in an historic neighborhood called Church Hill. And it's a real problem. It's very frustrating. The house next door to me has been abandoned for over 10 years and the owner has died, left it to their son. Now their son's dead. You know, who knows who's in charge of it now.
But, you know, in our city, you pay $25 fee to register with the city your vacant property. And you can, you know, keep it vacant for as long as you want it as long as you're meeting the minimum requirements, keeping the grass cut, keeping it boarded up. And when you pay your $25 fee, you're on the vacant property owner list, which is viewable to the public. You know, they can view it online.
But I wish the city would be more aggressive because it's very frustrating, you know, the house next to me could be a great house. And the property taxes haven't been paid in over three years. And there's a process, you know, where the city can repossess the property and have a tax sale on it. But that process is very long and drawn out. A friend of mine had one done and it took over 20 years.
PATRICK: So it's very frustrating. And it does - it kills the property value and it kills the neighborhood, you know, especially when it was very cold outside. It wasn't uncommon to see these boarded houses that had been ripped open, you know, and somebody went inside and was staying in them. And it just brings the whole neighborhood down.
CONAN: Patrick, thanks very much. Appreciate it.
CONAN: Good luck to you. Let's go next to - this is Eva(ph), Eva with us from Savannah.
EVA (Caller): Hi. How are you?
CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.
EVA: Well, I just wanted to say that in Savannah, Georgia, and I think in a lot of other towns, where we can - citizens can take pictures of dilapidated houses in their neighborhood in the city and then the newspaper will choose and post it - well, put it in the newspaper with the contact information of the landlord.
CONAN: And does that work?
EVA: It does, indeed. And actually, Savannah is like a very big, small town so to speak. And so people start talking about and we've gotten a lot of reactions from that. It does work.
CONAN: And is this going on in your neighborhood too?
EVA: It does. It does. And also, the city has shortened the time that the previous caller was talking about, about action being done. And the city council has been very proactive in trying to shorten the length of time that they can get the landlords to have to, you know, freshen up their houses and make them less of a blight.
(Soundbite of crying baby)
CONAN: And - I see you've got other business to take care of there at home too. But do you think posting a sign in front of each property might help?
EVA: I don't know. I think the newspaper is very effective, especially if you have good saturation in the area.
CONAN: All right.
EVA: And also, of course, it's posted online and there's ways to go in search out these things, but I think it works very well.
CONAN: Eva, thanks very much for the call.
EVA: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Charlie(ph), Charlie with us from San Francisco. Charlie, are you there? Charlie is listening to the radio. So let's go next to - this is Jill(ph), Jill with us from Eugene, Oregon.
JILL (Caller): Hi. Well, I have similar stories as the previous two callers. But my question would be, you know, is there a statute of limitations on loans because the instance we have across from us is a couple - a family that they had a personal business, so filing business bankruptcy along with bankruptcy on their home. And we've been told, because the house has been vacant for four years, that until the business bankruptcy goes through, they can't even touch the house. And, you know, this could last for years.
And I do think the bank is active because somebody does come on a yearly basis to maintain, you know, the pipes and such, turn, you know, make sure things aren't blowing up in the house.
But - and the problem is, you know, how long can this last? Do know if there is a statute of limitations for these loans? Or can they go on like the previous caller said for, like, 20 years?
CONAN: I have to say, I think that may vary from state to state and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but I honestly don't know. And we will look it up and try to get an answer for you next week in our Letters segment.
JILL: All right. I'll look for that.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. We're talking about the town of Webster, Massachusetts, which is posting shame - will be posting billboards for their wall of shame to get owners to take care of dilapidated houses. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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