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Pawtucket targets blighted properties

August 12, 2013

PAWTUCKET—It's a homeowner's nightmare: living next door to a house where trash and debris are strewn about the yard and the grass is a foot high. Or perhaps the home has been damaged by fire or abandoned for foreclosure and it sits as an eyesore and a target for vandals.
There are reportedly hundred of these blighted properties scattered throughout the city, and a big part of Shaun Logue's job is to try and get something done about them. As director of Zoning and Code Enforcement, Logue is in charge of evaluating complaints and violations, which can range anywhere from putting legal and financial pressure on a property owner to mow the lawn and tidy up to more drastic measures such as razing a structure completely.
Logue, who has been in his position for about 10 months, said he knows what an irksome issue this is for the residents who try to maintain their homes and yards. In addition to lowering a neighborhood's property values, a blighted property, particularly one that is damaged and/or vacant, can also pose a health and safety hazard. Vagrants or youths sometimes find their way inside, which can lead to fires or acts of vandalism, or thieves get in and remove copper pipes and other fixtures.
Logue is currently involved in one of the more extreme cases: getting a blighted property at 288 Lafayette St. knocked down. The house was heavily damaged by a fire three years ago, and the owner walked away, leaving the city to deal with the bank that holds the mortgage. After obtaining a court order, Logue is expending funds from his budget to have the house demolished, and a lien will be placed on the property to recoup the costs.
“With the fire damage, the inside of this house is exposed to the elements,” said Logue, pointing to a large charred and open section on the second floor. “I know its going to make people happy to see this come down.”
A similar action was taken to raze two fire-damaged properties at 191 and 193 Harrison St. Both houses were rendered uninhabitable and the owners were being uncooperative in having them properly secured and repaired, Logue said. “Leaving these houses exposed created a huge life safety issue, and thieves were going into them and stealing the copper. This led to us getting an emergency order to demolish them,” he stated.
Logue said he will turn his attention next to a vacant and fire-damaged house at 171 North Bend St. This long-neglected property has also generated numerous complaints from neighbors and concerns on the part of Logue and his staff about public safety and vandalism. He added that a vacant house can sometimes even cost the city more money if police and fire services are needed due to incidents of theft, vandalism or arson.
Logue said he increased his budget request this year to address some of these properties. In addition, he noted that the city's Planning and Redevelopment Department recently received $77,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds this year to be used to also demolish several blighted houses. In their place, new housing will be built by various state and local agencies.
On a less severe level are properties found to be in violation of the city's code for housing or environmental reasons. These violations can be for things concerning the house itself, such as broken stairs, railings, or windows, gutters hanging off, and other obvious signs of neglect, or issues pertaining to the outside, such as overgrown weeds, mattresses and trash.
Once a complaint is received, an inspector will be sent out to assess the situation. If it rises to the level of a violation, a case is created on the property.
Logue said that when a housing violation is handed out, a homeowner is given 30 days to correct the problem. After this, a second notice will be sent, allowing another 30 days. If the problem persists, the property owner will receive a summons to appear in Housing Court. Failure to appear in court results in the city hiring a vendor to correct the problem, and a lien is then placed on the property to recoup this expense.
If the violation is considered to be something severe that could impact health or safety, a notice can be issued requiring immediate compliance. Sometimes, a police matter or fire inspection can turn up a housing issue that requires quick action. In these cases, the owner is given 72 hours to correct the problem. Other times, the Water Supply Board reports that a property appears to be vacant, based on a sudden drop in water use.
Logue notes that he and his staff of 12 are currently straining to deal with the large amount of complaints that come in regarding potential violations. There are complaints and then there are violations, and inspections need to be made to distinguish between the two.
What has helped is the addition of an Environmental Task Force. A half dozen volunteers, three each from Fairlawn and Woodlawn, have been trained in the basics of what to look for regarding housing violations. The task force is joined by two employees from the Department of Public Works who have been trained to assist the Department of Zoning and Code Enforcement in doing inspections.
A first phase of the Environmental Task Force effort resulted in more than 300 properties receiving violation notices. Logue said about 60 of these have already been corrected. The department also has a list of about 150 properties that have reportedly been abandoned. “We're extremely busy. All we ask is that people be patient,” said Logue.
Logue said that ever since he came on board, Mayor Donald Grebien has been telling him to make the blighted and neglected properties a priority. Environmental conditions such as uncut grass and accumulated trash have led to a problem with rats in some neighborhoods. He noted, however, that it would be beneficial if residents overall had a greater sense of pride in their place, even if they don't own the property.
“I wish people would take a more active approach...engage themselves in their neighborhoods a little more,” said Logue. “I'd like to see people put a little more sweat equity in to clean up their yards or fix broken windows, things like that. Even if you're a renter, it improves your quality of life.”
Follow Donna Kirwan on Twitter@KirwanDonna

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