Knowing who owns a vacant house and finding them has been a major obstacle to Department of Minimum Housing efforts to ensure that properties are properly maintained and don’t become a blight on the surrounding neighborhood.
Fortunately, the problem has become no worse in the past year, although foreclosures continue as people who are underwater on their mortgages still walk away from their property.
As of Friday, minimum housing was tracking 290 vacant properties in the city. That’s an increase of 71 houses from April of this year.
Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur says if these houses were occupied, neighborhoods would be stronger, more vibrant, land values would increase and area businesses would prosper. That is why he sponsored legislation, enacted earlier this year by the City Council and signed by the mayor, that gives minimum housing “more teeth,” in his words, to cope with the problem.
So far, the new law hasn’t been put to the test in Municipal Court. Nonetheless, Ladouceur believes his efforts are paying off and to illustrate his point, he asked a reporter to join him on Park Avenue last Thursday. This was the property that prompted Ladouceur to explore measures to deal with vacant properties. While campaigning, Ladouceur received complaints about the property and knew the city had cited the owner to no avail. The house had been boarded up, but there was a hole in the roof and the yard was overgrown with shrubs. Broken tree branches were left where they had fallen. The grass was uncut and the yard had become a depository for trash. The house was still boarded up Thursday and the roof still needs repair, but the yard was clean and shrubs and trees were trimmed.
Ladouceur credits the city’s chief building official, Al DeCorte, and minimum housing with the change.
“It’s all about keeping the pressure on him [the property owner] and that they’re not going to accept this,” he said.
But Ladouceur believes more can be done.
“I think we’re on our way to dealing with abandoned properties,” he said.
Ladouceur plans to meet with DeCorte and Municipal Court Judge Joel Gerstenblatt to see how the law could be “tweaked” to make it more effective.
Neither DeCorte nor Gerstenblatt have suggestions at this point.
While Gerstenblatt has dealt with vacant houses and, in fact, recently gave the city the power to demolish two vacant houses considered unsafe for habitation and beyond restoration, he has not had any cases involving violations to the new law. The law requires the owners to register vacant property at a cost of $100. That fee increases yearly to a maximum of $300. The fine for failing to register is $500. Property owners are also required to register with police and fire.
So far, about 75 properties have been registered.
“It is allowing us to get to know who is in charge,” DeCorte says of the registration process.
The city has a name and a contact for the property, although that may not be the owner. There is a trail to follow, whereas, in many cases, even with land records at its disposal, finding someone who will take responsibility is an exhausting process demanding countless calls and one dead end after the next.
“We can work all day just to track down one,” said DeCorte. That’s time the department doesn’t have, although it can also be highly productive, as the individual or institutional owner may have multiple properties.
Mayor Scott Avedisian sees the need to give the city greater leverage to compel owners to maintain their property.
“The people who live in the neighborhood shouldn’t have to put up with that,” he said of the property at 229 Narragansett Parkway.
A fire swept through the house about five years ago. The building was saved before being totally consumed. It was boarded up, but little has happened since then. It is one of the two properties Gerstenblatt has ruled the city has the right to demolish. The other is at 1007 Warwick Neck Ave. The roof to that house has serious leaks and DeCorte, who inspected it, says it is beyond the 50 percent point of restoration and should be demolished. If the property owners don’t take action, the city will step in and place a lien on the property for the cost of the demolition.
Avedisian would like to see the process expedited.
“The problem is the need to strengthen the minimum housing regulations,” he said.
He called the fines “really silly.” His point is that offenders would rather pay the fine than spend the money to remedy the situation. In some cases, the same individual is cited for the same offense in a matter of months and the process of court appearances starts all over again.
“What we need is a chronic offender statute,” says Avedisian.
Ladouceur, who recently attended Municipal Court and witnessed Gerstenblatt sentence a woman who continues to collect toys, furniture and items discarded by others on her property to serve 10 days at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI), thinks the same measures would go a long way to cleaning up vacant properties.
As institutions own many of the vacant properties, Ladouceur would like to see the city go after them.
“What I would love to see him do,” he said of Gerstenblatt, “is to put a couple of bankers in jail.”
The woman who was sentenced to 25 days with 10 days to serve has appealed her case to District Court, thereby removing the matter from Gerstenblatt’s jurisdiction and, in effect, starting the process all over again.
Gerstenblatt has found that many of the minimum housing code violations involve people who have financial issues. These are people who don’t have the resources to address the problem. There are others, he said, who have health issues and, regardless of fines or actions, are going to return to what they were doing.
“Sending them to the ACI is not necessarily going to clean up the property,” he said.
So, what should be done to get these people to comply with the codes?
“That’s for the social scientists and the psychologists,” answered Gerstenblatt.
Overall, as far as vacant properties are concerned, Gerstenblatt hasn’t noticed an increase in cases, although, he added, “There has been a bigger push for those issues for a while.”
Department of Public Works Director David Picozzi said that, overall, his department only cleaned several properties this summer, a reduction from 2012, although he didn’t have specifics.
“I think they’re starting to sell the houses,” he said.