hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

April 4, 2012

Editorial: New strategy promises results in war on blight

When the housing bubble popped, countless homeowners who had been kept afloat by it suddenly found themselves underwater, owing more than their homes were worth.

Unable to sell, they walked away or suffered foreclosure once they could no longer afford to make mortgage payments.

Some mortgage holders who were also unable to sell — or unwilling to sell at a loss — also walked away from their responsibilities. They left behind boarded-up buildings that, in some parts of the country, turned entire city neighborhoods and wide swaths of suburbia into ghost towns.

That hasn't happened here, but pockets of blight due to foreclosure and the downturn in the economy can be found in most cities and towns, including Haverhill.

The good news is that the city has a new strategy to fight the blight.

Mayor James Fiorentini talked about it at a press conference last week in front of a vacant house at 69 5th Ave. that had been the subject of repeated complaints from neighbors.

Here's how it will work:

The city, in conjunction with the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley, will ask the Housing Court to appoint receivers for troubled properties.

The receivers will have the power to do what the owners of record fail to do: rehabilitate the properties. The owners of record will then be ordered to reimburse the receiver. If they refuse to do so, as is expected, the receiver will take ownership.

Fiorentini said the strategy has worked elsewhere, putting homes back into the hands of those willing to maintain them and back onto the tax rolls.

Fiorentini said the city has targeted 25 properties for receivership — most them owned by out-of-town banks that have failed to respond to repeated requests by the city to maintain and secure the properties, as required by law. (See story page 1).

Fiorentini called the single-family home at 69 5th Ave. "one of the worst" of the derelict properties.

Bags of trash ripped open by animals litter the yard, as do parts of an old TV. The owner has not responded to demands for a clean-up and has failed to show up for court appearances, opening the way to receivership.

Abandoned properties the property values of law-abiding and conscientious owners. They are also a threat to the public safety and health once they become open to vagrants, vandals and drug users.

Abandoned properties have long been a problem for cities. In the past, cities had few options except to take ownership of the properties, which ultimately left taxpayers responsible for the cost of securing or demolishing them.

Under receivership, the city does not take ownership at any point, said Andrew Herlihy, director of the city's Community Development Block Grant program. "But we end up with a rehabilitated building without having to spend any taxpayer money," he said, Neighbors hope the program pans out.

Orlando Guzman, who lives next door to the house at 69 5th Ave., said he glad to hear the city is targeting houses like that "dump."

"I hope that they can just get them occupied," he said.

If the receivership program is a success, Fiorentini, Coakley and others involved will deserve the thanks not just of Guzman but of the entire city.