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Empty houses, full of problems

The vacant house, Mr. Labnon's house, and Mr. Poirier's house. (Photo by Erik Eisele) (click for larger version)
June 03, 2009
BERLIN — J.P. Poirier lives on Gilbert Street, a few buildings away from the police station. Next to him lives Bob Labnon. Mr. Poirier is 79; Mr. Labnon is 80. Both men have lived on Gilbert most their life — Mr. Labnon moved in when he was one.

Together they have watched the neighborhood decline. One house in particular, they said, is the worst.

"It's been empty almost 30 years," Mr. Poirier said.

He was talking about 33 Gilbert St, the house of much discussion at the city's fire meeting a few weeks ago. It has broken windows, a collapsing porch roof and a pile of wood behind its half-completed garage.

"The place is an absolute detriment," Mr. Labnon said. He lives next door at 39 Gilbert St.

Mr. Poirier's house and Mr. Labnon's house are the only houses on the block that aren't vacant.

"We've been living on this street all our lives," Mr. Labnon said.

Over time he and Mr. Poirier have watched the neighborhood fall apart. In two weeks the Bartlett School will close, adding to the feeling of an empty neighborhood.

But it's the house next door that Mr. Labnon worries about.

"It's very, very dangerous," he said. "I'm nervous about it every day. Someone's got to say enough is enough."

Mr. Labnon would like the city to tear the building down.

But the city won't, because it can't.

According to city manager Pat MacQueen, if the city doesn't own the property it can't do anything unless the property owner is in violation of a city ordinance or a state law. The city has to work within state laws, he said.

"There is no home rule in New Hampshire," he said. Municipalities can only enact ordinances authorized by state laws. The city can't decide to condemn houses on its own criteria, he said, because it has to follow the state laws.

"State laws are written to protect property owners," Mr. MacQueen said. Leaving a house vacant isn't against the law, he said. Property owners have to register the property and board the windows and doors, but that is all the city can make them do.

"The only way the city can enforce code violations is by going to court," he said.

And Berlin Fire Chief Randall Trull knows how difficult going to court for this type of action can be.

"The burden of proof is on the city to prove a property is unsafe," he said. "The situation is overwhelming for the city to grab a hold of."

Joseph Martin, the city's code enforcement officer and building inspector, said there are around 100 vacant buildings in the city. He said he has to prove clear and imminent danger to the occupants or the neighbors to declare a building unsafe. If a vacant building is falling in on itself but no one lives there he has no power to declare it unsafe.

Even if the building is falling to one side and endangering a neighboring property, Mr. Martin said it can be difficult to do anything.

"I can't just go on the property," he said. He has to contact the owner, and he might have to get an administrative warrant.

"There are rules in place so we don't step on somebody's feet," he said.

The rule he follows is RSA 155B, the section of state law dealing with hazardous and dilapidated buildings. These are the same rules the fire chief follows for buildings that have been burned and abandoned.

Chief Trull said he is familiar with the process of using RSA 155B to clean up properties; he is in the middle of doing four of them right now.

"It's still private property," he said, so the city has to prove to the judge that an owner isn't doing anything to clean up their property. It requires lawyers, multiple trips to court, and about a year to complete. The chief said each RSA 155B of these takes about 20 hours of his time.

And that's without the clean up.

"We paid $44,000 for the very first one," Mr. MacQueen said. Now it costs closer to $15,000 or $20,000 in demolition costs for the city to clean up one of these properties.

In total the city has paid $600,000 to remove dilapidated buildings since 2005, according to City Housing Coordinator Andre Caron. While $320,000 went to the clean up of burned buildings, Mr. Caron said $280,000 was used to demolish buildings the city aquired through tax liens. The city has reduced expenses by arranging for disposal of hazardous materials itself instead of having contractors bid on it.

"We figure we're saving something around 35 percent," he said.

Mr. MacQueen said that the city has had to pay for almost every one of these demolitions out of pocket. Demolition money is very hard to come by, he said, because the rest of the state is dealing with too little affordable housing instead of too much.

Berlin has the lowest property values in the state, he said, so it usually isn't worth it for property owners to rebuild after a fire or renovate after a house falls into disrepair. The result is the glut of empty houses around the city.

But RSA 155B was recently changed to help deal with this problem. A provision was added to the law that allows the city to find out if a property owner has any other properties in the state and put a lien on those properties if they neglect their Berlin property. The law also now allows the city to put a lein on the insurance payout after a fire.

Chief Trull said this change will be instrumental in convincing property owners to clean up their properties. The owner of one of the properties currently going through the RSA 155B process lives in the southern part of the state, he said, and the threat of a lien on his primary residence will almost certainly convince him to clean up the property.

With these new provisions, he said, the RSA 155B process has suddenly become cost effective. Before he would spend 20 hours fighting to earn the city the right to spend $20,000 on a clean up. Now, he said, some property owners are paying their own costs. He said he feels things are looking up.

Mr. MacQueen said he's noticed a change as well.

"When I first came here the city looked much worse," he said, but no one called to complain. "I wondered why people didn't care about these dumps."

Now, he said, people do complain. More people care about the way the city looks, and he hears about it. He said the city is continuing to clean up what properties it can.

The city is currently in the process of taking ownership of 14 properties, according to Mr. Caron. The owners owe taxes for 2006, 2007 and 2008. Most of these will be deeded to the city, he said, and if the city can't sell them they'll demolish them.

"We find funds and we try to tear it down," he said.

The city just received a $280,000 grant for demolition from the federal govenment, Mr. MacQueen said, the first grant money the city has ever received for such a purpose.

Still, the money can only be applied to properties the city owns. And RSA 155B only applies to burned out buildings or properties the owner hasn't kept to the satisfaction of the law. The building on Gilbert Street doesn't fit either description.

Mr. Martin said he is familiar with the building, but the owner has been working to satisfy her obligations. Chief Trull said he is familiar with the property as well, but if it isn't burned he can't do anything about it. Mr. MacQueen said the city can't do anything either because the taxes are paid.

Mr. Labnon, meanwhile, said he wants the thing torn down, but he understands the city's prediciment.

"Their hands are tied," he said.

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