According to estimates, there are 400 abandoned, foreclosed and vacant houses in the city.
Those are not good numbers, but it’s not the numbers that trouble Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur. It’s their effect on the neighborhoods that have him concerned.
He says every empty house, especially those properties left to deteriorate, serve to weaken the city. They are the seed of blight and an attraction for vagrants or thieves who strip out copper plumbing and anything else of value they find. They attract varmints and pose fire hazards for homes nearby.
Vacant homes, even those that have been boarded up, where crews regularly cut the grass and trim the trees, can be like a cancer. They serve to devalue neighboring properties and that, in turn, makes them difficult to sell or get loans to upgrade.
Ladouceur became intimately aware of the problem as a candidate for Ward 5. His ward has 3,296 homes and 6,900 voters. Ladouceur knocked on the doors of most of those homes. He talked to thousands of Ward 5 residents and talked to homeowners who live next to abandoned houses. Ladouceur empathizes with those people. He says “they’re taking a beating” and, after he talked with them, he vowed to do something.
That “something” became a five-page ordinance, the product of multiple meetings with police, fire, city building and minimum housing, the city and council solicitors, mayor’s office and the tax collector and assessor. With minimal debate and discussion, the legislation gained first passage last week. It will come before the council for second passage next month.
Key to the legislation is a mechanism to identify who is responsible for a property. Further, it requires owners of abandoned property to register the property and to list the property with its contact information with police and fire and to maintain it to minimal standards.
“It’s going to give us more teeth,” said Tax Assessor and Collector Ken Mallette. While the city can board up vacant houses and clean up properties, placing a lien on the property for repayment is not only cumbersome but also can take months or longer to execute. Often, because they don’t want the cost of foreclosure and the recording that goes along with it, banks will hold onto a property long after owners have ceased paying their mortgage and vacated the premises. This often leaves the city not knowing whom to chase.
Mallette said the ordinance would enable the city to go after the banks.
“Any tool the council can give us will help,” said city Building Official Al DeCorte, who comes to Warwick after working in three other municipalities, adding that the problem of abandoned
houses is “everywhere because of the economy.”
As of Friday, DeCorte said his department has confirmed 219 vacant homes in the city, from properties where there is debris in the yard and holes in the roof, to well-kept properties that, by all appearances, are lived in.
DeCorte did not know what the 400 estimate of abandoned properties used by Ladouceur includes. He said he doesn’t imagine an adversarial relationship with the banks. They are seeking to recover what they can of their loans and “they want to do the right thing also.”
Mayor Scott Avedisian said yesterday that the ordinance “will go a long way to give the city the mechanism” to pursue those who abandon their property. He said it will strengthen enforcement and prove “important and helpful.”
According to the legislation, registration of an abandoned property carries a $100 fee that increases to $200 on the second year and $300 on a second renewal. Failure to register at all carries a $500 fine. According to Ladouceur, the fees will flow into the building department and maintain the database of abandoned properties.
Ladouceur said the “team” that worked on the legislation focused on the problem of abandoned houses and “really got into it. They were a great team.”
Ladouceur said his primary goal is to get the houses occupied. He wants to see utilities back on; and people buying from local stores; and contributing to the community. He believes there are many ways to make the properties attractive to buy, whether it is locking in valuations that freeze taxes or programs to assist potential buyers. He is especially interested in making abandoned property affordable for veterans.
“It’s 10 times better than what we had,” Ladouceur said of the legislation. “It is bringing a sense of urgency, for nothing is going to happen unless we start [it].”
Thinking on a larger scale than the city, Ladouceur suggests state legislation that would allow a moratorium on property taxes – he suggests a two-year period after an abandoned property has been acquired – as an incentive to fix up and occupy properties. His argument is that municipalities stand to gain, as the depreciated value of entire neighborhoods is far greater than the lost revenue from a couple of properties.