Randell: On Austin Street, a poor example of leadership, citizenship

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Each month the city of Worcester holds Chapter 139 hearings at 25 Meade St.

Bill Randell

Bill Randell

All the various departments review their list of dangerous buildings, which typically have condemnation orders in place, with the owners or representatives of those properties.

These meetings happen to be among the more effective processes in the city of Worcester.

Section 1 of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 139 says:

The aldermen or selectmen in any city or town may, after written notice to the owner of a burnt, dilapidated or dangerous building or other structure, or his authorized agent, or to the owner of a vacant parcel of land, and after a hearing, make and record an order adjudging it to be a nuisance to the neighborhood, or dangerous, and prescribing its disposition, alteration or regulation. The city or town clerk shall deliver a copy of the order to an officer qualified to serve civil process, who shall forthwith serve an attested copy thereof in the manner prescribed in section one hundred and twenty-four of chapter one hundred and eleven, and make return to said clerk of his doings thereon.

The purpose is not to take over these properties or to use city funds to demolish these buildings, but to 1) make these properties safe; and 2) help the property owner, ideally, get the parcel back into good condition. Beginning three years ago I had to attend these meetings for about two years after a fire in an attached building caused damage to two properties that then had condemnation orders issued.

During the course of these two years, I must have attended at least eight meetings on these two properties until my buildings were determined no longer to be a danger to the neighborhood, and the condemnation orders were lifted. Today they are completely rehabbed and occupied.

I can tell you firsthand, these meetings are extremely fair and give the owner ample opportunity to complete any recommendations that are given. Sometimes, I actually felt that they gave the owners, or their representatives, too much time.

The owners of 89 Austin St. — Iglesia Cristiana de la Comunidad, led by the Rev. Jose Encarnacion, who is married to District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera, a co-pastor of the congregation — were issued a condemnation order on May 7, 2013, and have had more than three-and-a-half years to rectify the problems.

One valid excuse that I have heard at these meetings is that the owner simply does not have the money to make necessary repairs. At that point, the committee gives the owner time to try to sell the property in hopes the new owner can fix the problem. The last thing the city of Worcester wants to do is spend its own money to demolish the building. I saw this exact thing happen with a three-decker on Millbury Street next to the PNI [Polish Naturalization Club].

That excuse in this case would seem hard to accept when five months after the condemnation order was issued, a mortgage of $40,000 was taken out on 89 Austin St. Maybe there were other needs for this money, but I would hope the safety of the neighborhood and taxpayer obligations would have been a priority for the property owner.

Why weren’t these monies spent to demolish the building and remove this safety hazard from the landscape of the city of Worcester?

And if they weren’t able to demolish it, then why not attempt to sell it? Maybe I missed it, but I do not see any MLS listings for that property during the past three years.

To review, it appears this property owner was issued a condemnation order in May 2013 and then proceeded to:

  1. Not comply with the recommendations of the Chapter 139 meetings
  2. Mortgage the property, but not put that money toward having the condemnation order removed
  3. Not attempt to sell the property to someone else who might be able to rehab the building.

Again we could be wrong on this point, but from the outside looking in, there appears to be something amiss.

As a last resort, the city decided it needed to take matters into its own hands and tear the building down utilizing Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. The positive spin on CDBG investment here is that it goes into first position with taxes, water and sewerage ahead of any mortgages, so the chances that these monies will be recouped are extremely high. At the same time this blight is finally removed.

The problem is that CDBG monies are limited and should be invested in things that actually develop the community, such as Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Areas (NRSA), facades, playgrounds, etc. Instead they were to be diverted to a property that the owner has not maintained to the barest minimum of safety standards and that the city has determined to be a danger to the community. Complete waste of CDBG monies.

How can any city councilor expect his or her constituents to comply with code enforcement when they themselves do not? Our leaders are supposed to set the example, not take up valuable time of city employees, tie up CDBG funds, and be the source of problems.

Bill Randell started and operates the local news website Worcester Herald, and is the owner and author of FlyORH, a website dedicated to Worcester Regional Airport. He is also president and founder of Worcester-based businesses Advantage Benefits Group and ABG Real Estate.

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