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Manchester's Commission on Substandard Housing is looking at ways the city can hold landlords accountable. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)

Manchester panel challenges scofflaw landlords


MANCHESTER — When the city’s Commission on Substandard Housing got to work around this time last year, one of the first things members asked for was a list of citations issued by code enforcement officers for housing code violations.

What they learned was that in 2014, of 140 citations issued, 74 were disposed of as “FTA,” which stands for “failure to appear,” with no consequence to the scofflaw.

It quickly became apparent to commission members that some landlords, certainly not all, were not being held accountable for unacceptable, even illegal, conditions. Citations are being ignored; tenant grievances go unresolved; and vacant buildings create hazards with no recourse for the city.

Those are some of the issues that the year-long work of the commission was meant to address, with a set of recommendations due to aldermen next month.

“We’re on track to send our report to the mayor and aldermen by March 24,” said Ward 3 Alderman Patrick Long, a member of the Substandard Housing Commission and a Democratic state representative.

The committee’s research has led to three types of conclusions: recommendations the city can implement; issues that still require some research; and initiatives that would require action by the state Legislature — most geared toward reaching the absentee landlord.

One recommendation making the final report is for the Code Enforcement Division to compile a list of all multi-family buildings that do not have a current Certificate of Compliance from the city.

Any property that does not have a certificate will be visited by several city departments and each will be required to act on its area of responsibility, with a monthly report submitted to the mayor and aldermen.

Another would require each owner of a multi-family building to post in a common area a notice containing the contact information for the owner and his or her agent.

If the owner or his agent doesn’t live in New Hampshire and within 25 miles of the building, they’d have to post the contact information for a person who can be reached. When ownership of a building changes, a new posting would have to go up within 24 hours.

Getting responses

Those two fall in the category of low-hanging fruit, that the city could realistically implement in short order.

Then, there’s the issue of getting all landlords to respond to code violations.

“It seems there might be a way to change how housing code violations are processed,” said Sarah Jane Knoy, executive director of the Granite State Organizing Project (GSOP), whose 2014 study on substandard housing in Manchester helped trigger creation of the commission.

“Right now, there is no consequence for failure to appear, but if the citation was changed to plea by mail, similar to a parking ticket, there would be consequences,” she said. “A switch to plea by mail, already allowed under state statutes, we think would make a huge difference.”

Another idea involves integrating computer systems among the many departments involved in housing code enforcement. “I think there are going to be some strong recommendations that various software and hardware updates get implemented,” she said. “That was something we suggested in the original GSOP report.”

With better use of mobile technology, the city could speed up and streamline its code enforcement process. “The inspectors would have hand-held tablets, where they could take pictures, write up violations and issue citations all at once,” said Knoy, “instead of having to go back to the office to write up violations after viewing each property.”

State House issues

Dealing with one of the city’s most pressing housing problems, abandoned buildings, would require action at the State House, said Long.

“There are some things we’d like to do,” he said, “but to enable us to do that would take legislation.” Cities and towns in the state need more power to deal with property owners who refuse to address safety issues at abandoned buildings.

“Right now, if you’re an owner paying taxes on a building that’s abandoned, as long as your taxes are paid, and you board the place up every time you get called because of a break-in, you’re good,” said Long. “So that property can sit there for 10 or 15 years. If it’s your property and you just want it to eventually fall down, that’s your prerogative.”

Long said communities need the power to condemn and demolish buildings that are a blight on the neighborhood and a public safety hazard, of which there are several in Manchester.

“You see those buildings with the big X’s on them?” he said. “Those are there because firefighters may have to go in there, and that gives them a warning that if there is a fire in there, be cautious, because roofs are going to fall, floors are rotted out. We have to have flags like that for our firefighters because they’re going into buildings like that all the time.”

Work ‘a good start’

The work of the Commission on Substandard Housing won’t address all the city’s problems, but it’s a good start, says Knoy, who has followed the process from the beginning.

“I’m very happy with the work of the commission. They are doing a good job with a complicated situation, and we have received good cooperation on the whole from the department of Planning and Community Development,” she said. “We’ll have to see what the final recommendations are, and what the Board of Aldermen accept or don’t accept.

The commission’s final meetings are scheduled for 10 a.m. in the second-floor conference room at City Hall on March 7 and March 21.

Commission Chairman Michael Tessier, a retired Manchester police captain, said all are welcome.

“I’ve been up front with everyone all along,” he said. “We are willing to use a carrot or a stick, whichever works best. We understand that property owners have their money and livelihood invested in this, so we aren’t interested in putting anyone out of business. The only thing we’re interested in is making sure places are comfortable and fit for people.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com