By Christian M. Wade
---- — Tall grass and bushes envelop a three-story, faded yellow house on Hazel Street in Salem. Old tires, trash and debris are strewn along the sides of the building — attracting rats and insects, neighbors say.
Tax liens and code enforcement fines have mounted over time, according to property records and city officials. Neighbors said they’ve complained to City Hall but nothing changes.
Cities and towns across Massachusetts are pockmarked with vacant houses and commercial buildings, many of which fell victim to the housing crisis. Derelict properties have dragged down real estate values in urban and suburban neighborhoods, in some cases attracting crime and vagrants, municipal leaders say.
In Salem, officials may soon employ a tool that other Bay State cities have used to keep vacant properties secure and presentable: a receiver. The triple-decker on Hazel Street, city officials say, is one of about a dozen buildings on their list.
“At some point, issuing tickets is no longer a remedy,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll. “We have a few properties where there is no clear chain of ownership, and they’ve become health and safety hazards. All it takes is one eyesore to drag down the whole neighborhood.”
Driscoll said one option for the city is to participate in an Attorney General’s Office program that provides lawyers and resources to track down landowners and force them to clean up or sell dilapidated properties.
Communities pay nothing to join the Abandoned Housing Initiative. Local officials turn over documents on properties to the attorney general’s office, which tries to contact owners. Failing an agreement, a court-appointed receiver is unleashed with authority to hire contractors to clean and fix up a property, then impose liens on the owner to cover their costs.
If the owners can’t pay, the property can be auctioned.
“It’s a great tool for those really tough properties where nothing seems to work,” Driscoll said. “The receiver can actually go onto the property and take over most of the tasks of cleaning it up. Maybe they can even put it into practical use by renting it out.”
Tom St. Pierre, director of inspectional services for Salem, said the story behind 12 Hazel St. is emblematic of the problem facing municipal officials as they try to get rid of derelict properties.
City records show the owner of the property — which St. Pierre says has been vacant for years — owes more than $3,000 in back taxes. Property records show a $20,000 lien related to a court judgement. Foreclosure proceedings were initiated in 2002 and 2006, according to the Southern Essex County Registry of Deeds, but never went before a judge.
St. Pierre said it’s been impossible to engage the property owner, who lives in Beverly. Attempts to contact the owner for this story were unsuccessful.
The state-run program has overseen the cleanup of at least 345 properties since 2009, including in Peabody, according to Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.
State attorneys are currently targeting 241 properties, she said, 42 of which are being handled by receivers.
In Peabody, the city has cleaned up several vacant properties under the program, some just by having the attorney general’s office threaten involving a court-appointed receiver.
“In some cases, just sending a letter was enough,” said Christopher Ryder, chief of staff for Mayor Edward Bettencourt.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are weighing a bill to give towns and cities blanket authority to create registries of vacant properties and charge owners of listed properties a $100 registration fee. A number of North Shore communities have already taken similar steps by enacting local ordinances.
Gloucester created a registry about five years ago to deal with dozens of vacant houses and commercial sites abandoned by lenders and property owners. The city charges landowners an annual $500 fee. The money goes into a maintenance fund.
Foreclosed properties must be maintained, secure and have no code violations. A sign must be posted on each property with 24-hour contact information for property managers.
The city uses the registry to track down property owners and notify them of problems. If that doesn’t work, it will send landscapers to clean up a property, then place a lien to recoup those expenses.
Gloucester’s registry lists about 30 properties. Building inspector William Sanborn said that’s helped the city hold banks, mortgage firms and owners of foreclosed properties responsible.
“We’ve tried to stay on top of it,” said Sanborn. “It’s made a big difference.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org