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City taking aim at absentee landlords

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 12. 2015 11:03PM
Police removed 13 people they say were squatting in a bank-owned building at 287/289 Lowell St. last week. (JEFFREY HASTINGS)

MANCHESTER — Mayor Ted Gatsas on Friday commended Bank of America for its cooperation as the city shut down an unoccupied building on Lowell Street, displacing 13 squatters and arresting four of them.

Unfortunately, he said, there are far too many abandoned properties whose owners are not cooperating.

Bank of America, owner of 287/289 Lowell St., boarded up the building on Wednesday after members of the community policing division teamed up with several city agencies to remove the squatters.

Police said it was the third time in the past 12 months that officials have had to remove squatters from the building, and that Bank of America had not responded to previous requests to have it sealed. Despite those delays, Gatsas said the Bank of America response has been better than most.

Although the economy is improving and the number of foreclosures has declined, banks or other mortgage lenders still own a significant number of properties abandoned by investors or absentee landlords during the recession. Gatsas said the city is dealing with approximately 200 abandoned properties, both multi-family and single-family, with some more secure than others.

“The morning we called Bank of America, they jumped right on it,” he said. “They have been very responsive. We’ve got to get the same sort of response from other banks, particularly the out-of-state banks.”

Gatsas said he has been pressuring an Oklahoma bank to deal with a property near the Cumberland Farms on Hanover Street. “I’ve been dealing with them for five or six months, trying to get them to do something,” he said. “We call them twice a week, and next week, we’ll start calling them three times a week.”

The mayor said he can’t understand why a bank would want to risk the liability of owning an unoccupied and unsecured building, when the city is offering an easy out.

“Just deed it over to the city,” he said. “The bank can take it as a tax deduction, and we’ll find a nonprofit that wants to use it.”

Stepped-up code enforcement could push more owners of abandoned properties to the bargaining table, with the threat of fines for violations. That’s one reason Gatsas said he has included the hiring of two additional code enforcement officers in his budget now pending before the board of aldermen.

“Will that solve the problem 100 percent? Of course not,” he said, “But it’s one piece of the puzzle.”The plan calls for the city to use about $140,000 in community development block grants to bring the total number of “compliance officers” from four full-time and one part-time, to six full-time and one part-time.

The use of CDBG money for code enforcement has grown in recent years, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the grants.

Federal regulations permit the use of CDBG funds for “code enforcement in deteriorated or deteriorating areas where such enforcement ... may be expected to arrest the decline of the area.” Sarah Jane Knoy, executive director of the Granite State Organizing Project, cited a report published by the organization last spring, calling for more housing inspectors in Manchester, among other things.

“We were delighted that he (Gatsas) made that proposal, and we fully support it,” she said.

The GSOP, which advocates for tenant rights, produced the report titled “Substandard Housing Conditions in Manchester,” after five years of research.

“It is possible to provide decent housing at an affordable cost in Manchester. In fact, most center city building owners strive to do just that,” the report stated. “However, a small but significant number of owners, who own multiple buildings and control large numbers of apartments, are responsible for substandard conditions in several hundreds of Manchester apartments.”

Knoy said abandoned buildings have the potential to drag down the entire neighborhood.

“If all the rental housing is kept up to code, with across-the-board fair and equitable enforcement, then the housing stock overall will be better; it will be safer,” she said. “But right now there seems to be a substandard strata of housing in the city center that is dragging down the market, and is a disincentive to good property owners to keep their properties up when this kind of deterioration is going on all around them.”

Knoy said the organization’s research points to a direct link between a lack of code enforcement and abandoned properties.

“As buildings deteriorate, and as inspections aren’t kept up to date, at some point, that contributes to abandonment,” she said. “And abandonment contributes to the situation on Lowell Street that was just reported.”

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