City goes after blighted properties
By Gordon Dritschilo
Staff Writer | May 01,2013
Anthony Edwards / Staff Photo
The front of 40 Pine Street is shown on Monday.
The city has launched a house-by-house attack on blighted properties in the northwest neighborhood.
Mayor Christopher Louras said he hopes heavy ticketing of building code violations will push owners into fixing up some of the city’s most decayed houses. He said there won’t be instant results, as some properties may be pushed into the tax-sale process, which takes more than a year.
“I wish there was something that could be done more expeditiously,” Louras said. “We’re going to work within the constraints of the law.”
A housing-needs study completed last year recommended that the city focus revitalization efforts on the northwest neighborhood, and particularly the area of Library Avenue, Maple Street and Pine Street.
Later that year, the city found itself owning a house at 37 Pine St. after it went up for tax sale and nobody bid. Louras said he would use the house as a starting point, going after blighted properties in its immediate vicinity.
James Simonds, head of the building and zoning department, said he has written about 50 tickets each at 128 Library Ave. and 40 Pine St. for violations including broken windows, plywood over windows, missing clapboards, and paint and railing problems.
Tickets start at $50 each, he said. If not paid or appealed within 10 days, they go up to $520 (a $500 fine plus a $20 fee for not responding), and can go up another $40 if not paid promptly after that, according to the Vermont Judicial Bureau.
“I figured if they’re not paying them, 50 times $500 is quite a chunk of change,” Simonds said. “I just stopped writing tickets at 50. ... These are the only ones I’ve been ticketing every day.”
Gabrielle Lapointe, a clerk at the Vermont Judicial Bureau, said that as of Monday, 21 of the 51 tickets issued to 40 Pine St. had hit the $520 level.
Should the tickets continue to go unpaid, the city can put the properties up for tax sale. City Treasurer Wendy Wilton said that while she has never sent a property to tax sale solely for municipal tickets, she has recovered municipal fines at auctions prompted by delinquent taxes or water and sewer fees.
Whether the fines are paid by the property owner or recovered through tax sale, Wilton said the city would receive the money, less a $12.50 processing fee the state would claim on each ticket. At 40 Pine St., that means the city already has roughly $10,000 coming its way.
Louras said he would like to see that money placed in some sort of neighborhood improvement fund.
“It’s not at all intended to be a money-making proposition,” the mayor said. “The intent is to get the blighted properties remediated. We don’t want to be punitive for the sake of collecting revenue, even if we have some good uses for it on the outside.”
There is also the possibility that, as with 37 Pine St., the city will wind up owning one or more of the properties following tax sales. Should that happen, the city will see which are viable to sell and which need to be demolished.
Louras said he did not see the city fixing up the properties.
“The way I see it, we would sell it to somebody committed to living in the property,” he said. “They would fix them up.”
Louras also said the city would likely retain any cleared properties rather than sell them as building lots.
“Given we have such a housing glut at this point, I would think it would he pocket parks or green space,” he said.
The Pine Street location is owned, on paper at least, by Deutsche Bank and assessed at $134,000, while 128 Library Ave. is owned by the estate of Marjorie Withington and valued at $96,900.
An attorney for the estate did not respond to inquiries. A representative of Deutsche Bank referred questions to Ocwen Financial Corporation. A representative of Ocwen said Tuesday the company was not aware of any notices of violation and was “researching the circumstances of this property immediately.”
Simonds said he has written some tickets at another Pine Street building in foreclosure and has begun to eye a Baxter Street house, having just sent out a letter notifying the owner of violations there.
“I figured I’d start another house,” he said. “We did a walk-around, noted the violations. It takes so much time every day, so you can’t do more than four or five at once. We’re just taking them as we find them.”
At least one landlord on Library Avenue has responded after getting several tickets, according to Simonds, and has talked to the city about repairs.
“It’s too early to tell how it’s working,” Simonds said.
The city budget approved for the 2013-14 fiscal year includes a new position in building and zoning, created to help in the anti-blight effort. Simonds said the logistics of the new position were still under discussion with the mayor.