Peabody has mixed success dealing with abandoned homes

Salem News (MA), 2014-07-15

July 15 -- PEABODY -- In January 2013 , the city gave a state task force a list of 12 abandoned homes that city officials said were hurting neighborhoods around Peabody . The goal was to allow the attorney general's office to put pressure on those property owners and motivate them to take action, since the city had been unsuccessful.

A year and a half later, half of those homes have either been sold and redeveloped or are being renovated now.

Many of the dilapidated, boarded-up homes are not in highly trafficked areas of the city but, rather, have sat empty for years in residential neighborhoods, said Mayor Ted Bettencourt .

The "biggest success" to date, he said, is a colonial home at 6 Overlea Ave. that was barely visible from the street due to overgrown trees and shrubbery. It was finally sold by the out-of-town owner in December for $50,000 and torn down. A new home has been built in its stead.

"It hurts the overall quality of life. ... They're just a blight," Bettencourt said of abandoned homes.

That's why he partnered with the attorney general's Abandoned Housing Initiative; the AG's office can threaten state-appointed receivership if the owner doesn't come up with a plan to rehab the property.

The plan appears to be working, though slowly. Bettencourt said three homes were placed into receivership; others were finally resolved in probate court, sold or renovated, and still others simply required the threat of action to force a resolution. The city has now identified another 20 buildings to forward to the AG's office for action.

Jillian Fennimore , a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, confirmed that cases on five of the 12 properties are closed, although 83 Winona St. was deemed "not economically feasible for receivership." That split-entry home in West Peabody is shrouded by trees, shrubs and weeds. It was sold in 2010 for $136,290 , according to city records, but has been abandoned since at least 2012.

City inspectors can enforce safety and sanitation codes, but that's mostly in response to complaints or after firefighters are called to a scene, Bettencourt said. The city has placed liens on homes for unpaid taxes, but in the end, it's still private property, he said. The city does have a local ordinance through which it can levy fines on owners who don't secure their property.

No one has lived at 3 Patricia Road for about 15 years, thanks to a long-standing title dispute played out between family members, Bettencourt said. That case was finally resolved, and the home was recently razed.

"It looks great. I know the neighborhood is very excited," he said.

Under the state program, the city submits a list of distressed properties to the AG's office, which then inspects the homes and performs detailed title searches. A potential receiver is identified, and notice is given to the owner and other parties with a financial interest in the property. Ideally, a cooperative owner agrees on a repair plan and monitoring of the site; otherwise, the case goes to court, where a receiver can be appointed.

The stories behind the abandoned homes range from bank foreclosures during the housing crisis to family disputes over ownership and neglect by owners who don't live in Peabody . Health Inspector Bill Pasquale , along with Health Director Sharon Cameron , are the point people for the city on the effort.

Pasquale said abandoned properties generate safety issues and health concerns, and they're targets for vandalism. Neighbors have complained of rodents in people's yards because vacant homes weren't being maintained. At 11 Holten St. , a multifamily building, Pasquale said there are holes in the roof, and it was deemed structurally unsafe. The home remains boarded up.

Two empty homes at 31 Forest St. and 188 Lake St. were in probate court until recently, he said, and progress has been made elsewhere. Three unfinished condos at Juniper Village were purchased last year, completed and sold to new owners. A condemned home at 14 Shillaber St. , which had significant interior damage, was totally rehabbed; major renovations are also underway at 25 Dudley St. and 4 Hancock St.

As intricate as these cases are, some situations require a humanitarian intervention with owners who struggle to take care of themselves, let alone their homes, Bettencourt said. Residents of Reynolds Road , for example, are exasperated with a situation they've been dealing with for 15 years.

On the outside, 20 Reynolds Road looks like any other home, but inside, the house is filled waist-high with trash, and the cellar is completely flooded, according to Jeanne Bourne and Tim Hughes , who live on either side of the house.

They have complained repeatedly over the years, after a junk car returned to the property and neighbors spotted rats in the area. They believe the former owner occasionally stays there, despite the property being condemned.

"Repeated calls to the Health Department result in them saying there is nothing they can do. It is now the bank's responsibility. Meanwhile, our property values decrease along with our quality of life. Repeated attempts to find out the name of the bank holding the mortgage results in more frustration, as no one can give us that information," they wrote in a letter to The Salem News .

Cameron confirmed the house was deemed uninhabitable in February and an agreement was reached with the former owner, who now lives in Salem , to allow him to come and go to clean the home's interior. The city acted this spring to clean up outside the home, including removing the vehicle.

Cameron said it's unclear who has property rights to the house at this point, something the city is trying to ascertain. The city could seek an administrative warrant in court but hasn't done so. The city has twice placed liens on the property for unpaid taxes. The deed has passed between at least two banks and is now held by a Somerville resident, according to deed records.

"All we want is to get the place cleaned out," Bourne said.

You can reach John Castelluccio at 978-338-2527, or via Twitter at @SNjcastelluccio.


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