SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 11, 2013

Mayor acts to clean up blighted houses

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — One rotten apple can spoil a barrel. And one decaying home can run down a whole neighborhood.

To prevent it from happening in Peabody, Mayor Ted Bettencourt is allying the city with the attorney general’s office in an effort to require responsible parties to keep blighted homes in line with state and city building codes. Currently, 12 homes have been earmarked for special attention, and the goal is to have the courts appoint “receivers” who will ensure that they are brought up to standards.

“It’s a first step for us,” the mayor said, “but I think it’s going to pay dividends.”

The value of keeping properties presentable is obvious to real estate agent Anita Horowitz of Re/Max on Lowell Street. She applauds the mayor.

“I think the mayor’s taken great charge,” she said. “It would be awful if an effort wasn’t put forward.”

A blighted home, she acknowledges, is certain to affect the real estate values on properties all around it.

Homes suffering visible signs of decay, the mayor said, unfairly take a toll on neighbors who have worked hard keeping up their properties.

They can also pose a threat to public safety, attracting rodents and even serving as the site for illegal activities, Bettencourt said. Under the new program, the attorney general’s office will first try to locate owners and get them to remedy problems. In the current cases, the city got no response from the owners.

Banks may be held responsible as the ultimate owners of the buildings.

“Banks should have an obligation to clean up the property,” the mayor said.

The problem of rundown, neglected housing comes despite the fact that homes remain valuable in Peabody. The tide of foreclosures that followed the housing bubble is beginning to recede, Horowitz said.

“We’re over the hill now,” she said.

And it was never as severe here in the Northeast as it was in other sections of the country.

On the other hand, she said, states like Florida are recovering at a faster rate.

There are still foreclosures in Peabody, and despite the willingness of the banks to protect their investments, some structures fall through the cracks.

“Between the time someone decides, ‘I’m not in a position to keep up my property,’ and the time they go to loan mitigation or foreclosure, it can be a year or two,” Horowitz said.

Thus, the properties can deteriorate rapidly, sometimes with people in them and sometimes after the occupants have walked away.

Peabody’s code enforcement division located the 12 houses now on city radar.