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City eyes new tools to improve housing


October 27, 2010
The city of Berlin is taking action against its absentee landlords and is seeking an ordinance to hold them accountable for the actions of their tenants. The ordinance, which is nearing completion for Council approval in November will be used in conjunction with a new state law set to take affect on January 1, 2011. That law will allow officials place liens against properties if the owners do not pay building code violations.

For several years now Berlin officials have sought a means to improve the city's housing, said Mayor Paul Grenier. "We are in the process of adopting a series of new ordinances in the community that will allow us to cite negligent landlords that refuse to clean their property," he said. "It's all in an effort to put a crimp in these irresponsible slumlords that we have in our town and I would be thrilled to death if we could put them all out."

Under the new city ordinance a landlord will be forced to evict tenants who cause a large amount of public disturbance, explained Lt. Barney Valliere of the Berlin Police Department. "Disorderly action is what we're looking at and the actions of tenants," he said. Lt. Valliere, who has been working on drawing up the ordinance with housing coordinator Andre Caron and city manager Pat McQueen, explained that the additional ordinance came about after continued visits to the same addresses on School Street, Burgess Street, Champlain Street, and Rockingham Street, just to name a few. Over time, he said, these buildings without landlords present and without managers to act on their behalf have become run down and rampant with problems for the local police department and emergency services. The police are called to the tenements many times over during the year to address problems, he said.

Under the new ordinance, which is currently under review, a landlord will be required to evict any tenants that are seen to have caused an excess amount of "disorderly action," he said. This will bring an improved atmosphere to other tenants who are trying to live in peace, he said. "We're moving forward. We don't want to harm any landlord, we're just giving people who live in an apartment a better place to live."

By eliminating the large number of calls to these buildings the police department seeks also to improve community relations by working proactively to solve the community's problems and address the factors that contribute to crime rather than how the officers respond to crime. This will also make for a better police department, Lt. Valliere said. "We're trying to eliminate some issues and that will allow us to do more community policing rather than reacting to these problems anymore," he said.

"It's a continuous battle to try to deal with these housing issues,' said city manager Pat McQueen said. "Berlin has one of the worst housing problems in the state." Nashua and Manchester, which also boast similar problems, he said, receive more state attention in this regard. "It took three years to get the laws regarding tax deeded property to change," he explained, referring to new law, "even if it took the city of Manchester to do it, it's been done and we're happy about that."

Senate Bill 354-FN, which Governor John Lynch signed into law on June 22, will authorize the city to take action against delinquent tenement owners for health, building, or fire safety code violations by placing a lien on their property. It also requires that there be a designated agent to be available on their behalf if the landlord does not himself live on the property, according to the bill's text. Landlords will be subject to a $1,000 civil penalty as well as any attorney fees incurred by the city and if the lien is not satisfied within 120 days, the city has the option of foreclosing on the property. All landlords will be required to file with the city to name their agent or manager and pay a fee to be set at the discretion of the city officials, the bill reads.

This new law is an encouraging addition to a number of tools that will be at the city's disposal, said Mr. McQueen. The ordinance, which is currently being reviewed to ensure that it stands the test of law, will be coupled with it for greater leverage, he said. "It will be a big bite to finally getting our arms around the housing issue like we've never had before," he said. "We've come a long way."

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