GREENFIELD — Vacant, neglected buildings are targets for vandalism and squatting. They are hazards for fires, pest infestations and potential environmental contamination that can cost towns money. They may also result in unpaid town taxes and unhappy neighbors, who fear their own property values will drop by living next to an “eyesore.”
But health boards can take enforcement action with houses that don’t meet the state Sanitary Code — the minimum standards for human habitation.
About 17 percent of housing stock in Franklin County has “severe problems,” said Phoebe Walker, director of community services for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. While larger Franklin County towns have enforcement procedures in place, many smaller towns don’t. How best to use scarce resources was the topic of a recent FRCOG workshop.
“The key for boards of health is we need to follow a standard process, so nobody can complain we’re being capricious,” said Regional Health Agent Glen Ayers. “One thing I get asked a lot is: ‘Why are you picking on me?’”
“The key thing is that you have a method — not disparate enforcement,” he said. “If you’re following a sensible enforcement plant, you have made your decision based on a rational process.”
Ayers recommends that town health boards start by taking an inventory of abandoned and distressed housing within their town. The next step is prioritizing which properties need the most attention. He said many towns choose an inventory area, such as a downtown center, a densely populated neighborhood, or a part of town where there are several abandoned or distressed properties that blight the area.
The Board of Health housing code allows for inspections of a systematic area, for instance, street-by-street inspections of a downtown center or blighted neighborhood. Ayers urged inspectors to document all their findings, either through paperwork or building inspection forms available online. He said FRCOG has technical assistance money and could help towns set up their inventory records through June of this year.
In getting building owners to clean up their property, Ayers recommends taking “the least restrictive alternative” first, starting with voluntary compliance. One example would be to have a property owner come to a board of health meeting to discuss the property and possible ways to remedy unsatisfactory conditions.
Ayers, during Thursday’s meeting, said voluntary cooperation usually works, but if it doesn’t, the board should be prepared to take formal steps, including building inspections and setting deadlines or goals for specific improvements.
If voluntary compliance fails, health boards can consider going to Housing Court to get a court order for a receiver, who will bring the property up to code, but will put a lien on the property in order to get paid for the work when the property gets sold.
Other procedures include tax-taking, in cases where the property owner is far behind in tax payments. Foreclosure and condemnation are other possibilities, Ayers said.
Heath and Charlemont health boards are planning to set up a housing task force to look at distressed properties in those towns.
Glen Ohlund of the Franklin Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority pointed out that Community Development Block Grants, which must be used in low-income areas, can help pay for housing rehabilitation and other preventive measures to stop the deterioration of properties and neighborhoods. “If we can make (old homes) whole again, that would be preferable. Franklin County has some of the oldest building stock in the commonwealth,” he said.
A “tool kit for town officials” about how to deal with vacant and abandoned buildings will be posted on the FRCOG website: frcog.org