A five-member taxpayer-paid crew whacked weeds, cleared trash, and attacked overgrown bushes at a boarded-up squatter- and drug-magnet of a hovel in Fair Haven on behalf of one of the nation’s largest megabanks. But the bill will come due—and New Haven, unlike other cities, is poised to collect.
The clean-up took place Thursday at 187 Wolcott St. It took six hours, and added another $1,000 to a mounting bill New Haven has waiting for that property for Bank of America, which has stretched out a foreclosure suit against a long-gone debtor.
It was just another day of cleaning up messes left behind by predatory financial institutions for the five-member maintenance crew, part of city government’s Liveable City Initiative (LCI). The crew mows grass, clears debris, and rescues yards at over 100 problem properties around town, close to half of them private homes suspended in foreclosure limbo and the rest city-owned houses, according to LCI Deputy Director Frank D’Amore.
Other cities have struggled with keeping after big-bank absentee slumlords in the wake of the national foreclosure crisis. But unlike, say, Hartford (read about that here), New Haven has found a way both to keep much of the blight under control and make the hard-to-track lenders eventually pay the cost.
Thanks to a 2009 local anti-blight law, the city can slap priority liens on problem properties to recoup the costs of sending out the maintenance crew to mow grass or board up buildings. That means when the lender or absentee owner eventually sells a property, the city gets paid. Even if it takes a while. Even if, as in the case of 187 Wolcott, the lender avoids short-term responsibility by leaving the vacant property in limbo instead of taking formal ownership.
“As they get sold, we get paid,” D’Amore said. He said the city has brought in $16,849 so far this calendar year from work on 33 different properties.
That’s no mean feat, as city governments have learned trying to track down faceless out-of-state lenders and convoluted paper trails or deal with an ever-changing roster of local property management companies..
“Frank [D’Amore] always gets paid,” boasted his boss, LCI Executive Director Erik Johnson. In addition to cashing in on work the city does, LCI has also noticed that some lenders have gotten better about doing maintenance on abandoned properties. The city has seen a 50 percent drop in properties it must keep on top of, Johnson estimated.
In the meantime, Johnson said, “we’re not going to let the conditions deteriorate for years” while lenders wait to address dangerous slum conditions.
Which is why the crew was at 187 Wolcott for six hours Thursday with its weed whackers, rakes, hedge cutters, and industrial-sized lawnmower.
The two-family house—purchased in 2007 by a now-vanished owner for $225,00, most recently assessed at $14,910—has posed a problem for neighbors since Bank of America filed foreclosure in 2009 and the last legal occupant left a year later. It was one of several properties around the town the owner lost around the same time.
LCI keeps trying to find a human being to take responsibility at the bank’s field services arm, but “they haven’t been responsive,” D’Amore said.
In response to an inquiry by the Independent Friday, the bank issued this written response:
“Bank of America is committed to maintain properties to neighborhood standards within our legal authority. We work with service providers to inspect and maintain more than one million properties each month.
“Foreclosure on this property has not been completed, and primary property rights and responsibilities remain with the homeowner. When we are made aware that a property is vacant and is not being maintained while in the pre-foreclosure process, we may have authority under the mortgage terms to enter the property to secure it and do routine maintenance. However, this property is part of an active bankruptcy proceeding, and the bank’s authority to have contact with the customer or do anything on a property is limited unless the court relieves the mortgage from the bankruptcy. We ask residents to report issues with bank-owned properties by logging on to https://fieldservices.bankofamerica.com or calling 866-515-9759.”
Laurie Lopez, LCI’s neighborhood specialist (on the scene at right in photo with D’Amore), has returned twice in the past week to board up the house. Squatters were living there, shooting up, trashing the joint, she said.
Click on the play arrow to the video at the top of the story to accompany Lopez on a tour of the inside of the building. (Fortunately the video does not have an “Odorama” version.)
Lopez had on her Carolina logger boots as she tramped past the human feces on the first floor, the dog feces upstairs, amid abandoned condoms, ripped up mattresses, broken windows, cracked plaster, torn-out pipes. She has worn them on the job for years. “The first day [checking out an abandoned house] I stepped on a needle,” she recalled. “I never wore shoes again.”
She noted that the squatters use candles; they can potentially pass out after shooting up and light these tinderboxes on fire.
“People shouldn’t be forced to live next to people doing this. Ever,” Lopez said. “Every day it’s a small success. But it’s a success. And even if I get you out today, and tomorrow’s another day [and squatters return], it’s one day the neighbors don’t have to look at your shooting up, turning tricks.”
Out front of the house, maintenance staffer Garry Laroche extracted dumped drinking glasses and plates from the overgrown bushes and grass before firing up his hedge clipper.
Neglected abandoned homes like this one become magnets for dumping trash. LCI carts away some 700,000 pounds of debris a year as a result, D’Amore said. That’s one reason it returns with the weed whackers and lawnmowers.
Like some other lenders, Bank of America hasn’t formally finished foreclosing on the property and taking ownership. That means it isn’t yet legally on the hook for conditions or the cost of clean-ups. Officials say it remains one of the more difficult lenders to deal with, even its name doesn’t often show up on deeds. But thanks to New Haven’s anti-blight law, the bank or whomever it eventually finds to take 187 Wolcott off its hands will need to cough up the money at the time of a sale.
LCI first sent the clean-up crew there this past June. Then the bank prepared to hold an auction sale of the property. So LCI directed the maintenance to other needy lots.
However, the house didn’t sell at the auction. And the bank has continued to fail to respond to requests for clean-ups, according to Lopez. The board came off the door; the yards became “jungles” again.
Once again, New Haven had an example of how invisible absentee owners or lenders can hinder progress, how their blight can compete with hard-fought efforts toward progress. As 187 Wolcott continued drawing dumpers and druggies and dragged down the block, another work crew was busy across the street building a brand new affordable housing complex called Murray Place (read about that here) ...
... and kids returned for a new year at a $37.6 million John Martinez School a half-block away, one of the showpiece new public schools aimed at anchoring revived neighborhoods.
So the crew returned.
The day’s work led to a new $1,040 bill, according to D’Amore. That includes $25 an hour payment for the laborers as well as charges for equipment and dumping. That brings the total bill for maintenance on the property to $3,114, and counting.
As he gave the driveway a haircut and his colleagues tackled the backyard jungle Thursday, crew member Tirrell Smith, a 40-year-old New Havener, was asked where he does his banking.
“The credit union,” he replied.