Pittsfield sees slow progress in efforts to deal with blighted properties
PITTSFIELD — The city's efforts to deal with scores of vacant, boarded-up dwellings have recorded some successes in recent years, but the chronically long list of properties hasn't gotten any shorter.
Bonnie Galant, Pittsfield's community development and housing program manager, said the list of long-term vacant dwellings remains at around 100 properties, about where the total has hovered for several years. That holds true despite incentives offered to rehabilitate distressed properties and an ongoing demolition program that took down four properties over the summer and could eliminate another half-dozen in the coming months.
The costs associated with demolitions is certainly a factor in the list remaining long, she said, along with the sometimes excruciatingly slow process of clearing the legal, regulatory, historical and environmental hurdles before the bulldozers and wrecking balls come into play.
In truth, Galant and other city officials stressed that the mostly single-family or apartment dwellings that are demolished represent those that have been vacant for "years and years and years," and every avenue for resale or rehabilitation has been exhausted.
"There are some we didn't want to demo, but we have to," she said, referring to vacant structures that were once sound but have become safety hazards or a site for illegal drug use or other criminal activity.
Typically, there are many health and safety violations noted by city inspectors that would be overwhelmingly expensive to address, and/or mounting back taxes owed, which scares away anyone interested in purchasing and rehabilitating the structures.
Mayor Linda M. Tyer made dealing with blighted properties that can negatively affect an entire neighborhood a key component of her successful campaign for the office in 2015. She said that in addition to continuing to fund demolition of those structures that can't be restored, strategic changes in the way the city monitors vacant properties has helped slow the deterioration of the city's housing stock.
"We have done a couple of things in the day-to-day management of this to make what we do more effective," she said.
That includes striving for greater coordination among city inspectors and working with the state Attorney General's Office to implement an option that allows inspectors — rather than the city solicitor — to file code violation complaints with the Housing Court.
"It gives us more flexibility," Tyer said.
Concerning demolitions, the mayor said she believes Pittsfield "is setting a good pace" in trying to deal with a significant problem, but she adds that she was "very disappointed" when the City Council reduced from $50,000 to $25,000 the amount in city funds she proposed for demolitions in the fiscal 2017 budget, and also trimmed $3,000 from a Health Board nuisance abatement program to deal with distressed properties.
Another initiative suggested by the AG's Office, which Tyer said she will consider for the next fiscal year, is to target more than one dilapidated property in a general area for demolition to have a greater positive impact in that neighborhood.
Often there is an ownership issue involved, Galant said, as in an abandoned property with listed owners who live elsewhere or who are deceased, and the heirs show little interest in a house representing a major expense just to clear the taxes and code violations.
She said the cost of demolishing properties has been averaging about $35,000, meaning that just moving forward on the 30 percent of properties in the worst condition would require roughly $1 million, and demolishing half on the list would cost close to $2 million.
And that would be in addition to the cost of hazardous materials assessments required for each property before it can be knocked down, and possible assessments required to determine if there is any historical significance.
Each dwelling in the next group of city properties slated for demolition has been signed off on by the city Historical Commission, but they also must be reviewed for historical significance on the state level, and then bids will be sought to assess the hazardous materials inside each.
The hazardous materials assessments are followed by a bid on the cost for demolishing an entire group of properties.
Galant said city Community Development Department records dating back to 1992 show that 131 vacant and condemned properties were demolished, using a combination of Community Development Block Grant funding to Pittsfield and city funds.
The total cost over that period, she said, was $4,031,032, for an average of about $30,000 per structure. The number demolished was boosted slightly, Galant added, because the city received additional grant funding one year that allowed more than the average of about four per year.
In recent years, the city has razed about four properties annually, costing in the range of just over $100,000 in CDBG grant funding and city allocations.
It should be noted that the increase in vacant, dilapidated dwellings in Pittsfield has roughly paralleled the decline in the number of good-paying blue collar jobs, particularly at GE, and a slow population decline. The population here stood at more than 57,000 in the early 1960s but began a steady decline around 1970s as GE began shifting operations out of the city. The population today is approximately 44,000.
According to city Community Development Specialist Laurie Mick, four properties — located at 481 West St., 79 Third St., 244 Bradford St., and 10 Circular Ave. — were taken down in the spring, costing a total of $111,600 for the demolition work.
The city hopes to have several more demolished in the winter months, depending on the amount of funding available and the bids received. Those next properties are located at 173 Robbins Ave., 88-90 Robbins Ave., 266 Onota St., 211-13 Linden St., and 14-18 South Church St.
In addition, a city-owned property, at 193 Dewey St., will be included in the bidding. The site illustrates the potential for redevelopment once blighted vacant properties are removed, as Galant said that site is eyed as part of the city's planned Riverway Park, along the Housatonic River and Dewey Avenue.
Another demolition that had an immediate positive impact was a dilapidated house at 79 Third St., located almost directly across the street from the Samuel Harrison House, which opened to visitors in 2015.
Not taken by city
One common misconception about the demolition program, Galant said, is that the city has taken these properties by eminent domain, when in fact the demolition typically occurs after properties are condemned by the city and the owner has made no move to correct code violations and can't sell the property in its dilapidated condition with back taxes owed.
The city places a lien on the property for the cost of the demolition, which could come into play of the property is later sold or redeveloped.
Health, fire department and building inspectors work cooperatively to require that homeowners and landlords keep their properties — as well as their lawns and yards — up to health and safety codes, said Health Director Gina Armstrong.
That has worked well to "prevent further dilapidation" of those properties close to slipping in unsalvageable condition, leaving demolition as the last option. "I think we are making progress on that," she said.
The number of vacant properties being monitored does, however, hover around 100, she said, and now stands at 103 — the vast majority of them residential properties but a few commercial buildings as well.
The city Code Enforcement Committee — made up of city inspectors, Community Development and Purchasing Department staff members, the city solicitor, the mayor and others — discusses during monthly meetings whether the situation surrounding specific properties has changed and whether they should be added or dropped from the list, Armstrong said.
She said that there are always even more currently vacant properties in the city, but if a building is secure and well maintained it likely won't land on the list.
Justine Dodds, the city's housing specialist and fair housing officer, said the statewide Abandoned Housing Initiative, which is available through the state Attorney General's Office, is another option for rescuing rundown properties.
Dodds said the state provided communities with direct funding toward property rehabilitation efforts — obtained in a legal settlement with five large banks during the post-recession foreclosure crisis. And the AG's office provides technical assistance for an ongoing receivership program that allows contractors or other qualified persons to obtain a priority lien on a dilapidated property and then rehabilitate it for reuse or sale.
A $200,000 revolving loan fund also was set up in Pittsfield, with the settlement funding, providing loans of up to $50,000 per housing unit at no interest until the receiver can dispose of the rehabilitated property.
The AG's office works with the city's Board of Health to identify properties that qualify for the program — that is, those that don't carry a staggering back-tax burden or too expensive rehabilitation requirements, among other factors. And the office provides assistance in Housing Court to help qualified receivers gain the lien, which is considered to have priority after the tax bill owed the city.
Earlier this year, when the AG's office sponsored a training session for persons interested in the receivership program, state officials said more than 53 cities and towns in the state had been involved in the program, which had worked with about 700 abandoned properties at that point.
On the web ...
Information on the Abandoned Housing Initiative is available on the AG's website, at www.mass.gov/ago.
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