Mayoral Musings: Vacant and Abandoned

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Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly

Small communities like Bridgeton need to be aggressive in dealing with such properties.

If there’s one thing that can have a negative and long-lasting impact on neighborhoods, it’s the presence of vacant or abandoned houses not properly maintained. They easily become an eyesore and in addition to lowering property values, unkempt houses can become targets of vandalism and other nuisance activity. In winter, the possibility of fire impacting surrounding homes increases if illegal squatters light fires to try and stay warm.

Such unkempt houses have always posed a challenge, especially in resource-poor communities, but things got worse with the Great Recession in 2009. Coming off the financial crisis, many homeowners simply walked away from their homes and mortgages. Others stayed until the lender moved ahead with foreclosure.

It happened all over the country as people lost jobs or had hours cut at work. Depending on the type of mortgage, some people suddenly had monthly payments they couldn’t afford. This happened to homeowner-occupants, but it also happened to some who owned rental properties. Regardless, the financial crisis left a lot of people in a bad place.

Certain cities and areas of the country bounced back relatively quickly, but these areas were usually the ones with higher-end real estate markets near major metropolitan areas. For smaller communities, the bounce back hardly came if it came at all. Mortgage lenders had large inventories of properties around the country and this likely played a part in prioritizing where their attention and resources were placed and when.

For smaller communities like Bridgeton, this meant an inventory of vacant or abandoned structures that kept growing—structure by structure—well after economists had said the worst was over. This inventory of vacant or abandoned properties is with us today in varying conditions, with some properties worse than others, and with all of them contributing to the negative impacts mentioned above. This is not what we need in the midst of our other challenges.

With these negative impacts in mind and the need to do something substantial, working with City Council, we adopted a new vacant and abandoned property ordinance (ordinance 18-3) that seeks to implement a host of legislative tools passed by the State legislature (P.L. 2003, c. 210 and P.L. 2014 c. 35) that deal with the maintenance and upkeep of vacant or abandoned properties, including ones for which a creditor has filed an action to foreclose.

Under the laws crafted by the State legislature, the scope of responsibility and accountability was expanded to include the title holder as well as any agent of the title holder or any foreclosing entity with authority to act with regard to a given property. The tool kit goes on to define what constitutes a vacant or abandoned property and sets out procedures to be followed when enforcing the provisions of the ordinance.

The thing to know is that the ordinance has teeth and the journey in getting to this point was long considered and not done lightly or easily. We brought in the technical assistance we deemed necessary; the process of training staff, developing and managing the process, and dealing with this inventory of vacant or abandoned structures is ongoing.

Partly as a result of these efforts, as of this writing, we’ve seen 10 properties demolished in various neighborhoods throughout the city with some initiated by the private owners and others initiated by the City. While demolition is admittedly a drastic step, it is sometimes necessary to protect public health and safety, which is the first priority, but also to eliminate an obvious attractive nuisance in a neighborhood. That said, to the extent feasible, we hope to see the majority of properties rehabilitated and back on the tax rolls.

Small communities like Bridgeton need to be aggressive in dealing with vacant or abandoned structures because for many “investors,” banks and mortgage companies, these properties are just revenue streams gone bad in some town on a map—something they’ll deal with when they get around to it, something they’ll invest in only if they absolutely have to. Well, now they have to.

The issue of vacant or abandoned properties won’t be resolved any time soon as the housing and real estate markets are subject to cycles just like any other market. But having an ordinance with teeth and the ability and willingness to enforce it means that our community won’t be ignored and we won’t look the other way when problems arise.

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