NEW BEDFORD — The house on Easton Street has been vacant for months.
The grass is long. Fallen tree limbs litter the yard. The siding is damaged. The house’s owner died earlier this year, neighbors said, and no one seems to have taken responsibility for it since then.
“It’s a nice piece of property,” said George Faria, who stood in his mother’s driveway across the street on a recent Saturday afternoon. “I’d hate to see it go to waste.”
New Bedford is facing a severe housing crisis. Property values and rents have increased dramatically in recent years as demand for housing outpaces the city’s supply.
Yet almost 400 buildings stand vacant in the city, accounting for more than 570 empty housing units.
Josh Amaral, the director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development, sees them every day on his way to work.
“It bugs me when we pass by these properties that someone could be living in today,” he said. “And then there’s people that are living outside, or they’re crammed into an apartment that’s too small for their family and they’re paying out the nose for it.”
That’s why Amaral’s office is creating a new position: vacant property development manager. The new hire will work with property owners, developers, banks, courts, and other city departments to bring vacant properties back into use.
Most of the 399 properties on the city’s vacant building registry have been vacant for at least three years. Dozens have been vacant for more than a decade. They can be found in every neighborhood of the city. The vast majority, about 350, are houses or apartment buildings.
Some properties have fallen into legal limbo after the owner’s death. Others need costly repairs to be habitable. Some property owners are just sick of being landlords.
“It’s a shame that we have that many [properties] that are vacant and not being utilized,” said Pam Kuechler, executive director of the anti-poverty nonprofit PACE.
“It could make a huge difference if they were actually brought online to be rented at affordable rates.”
The city launched the vacant building registry in 2008, after the subprime mortgage crisis caused widespread foreclosures and property abandonment. Owners of unoccupied buildings must register them with the city, or face fines of $300 per day. Annual fees for being on the registry range from $500 to $3,000. That revenue goes into a fund that now employs two full-time staffers to monitor the buildings and help inspectional services with code enforcement when they fall into disrepair.
But that approach has failed to keep many vacant properties from languishing. A non-punitive approach might work better for these properties, said Ashley Eaton, the housing office’s neighborhood planner, who spends about one day a week on vacant properties.
The new vacant property manager will help property owners navigate their challenges and connect them with the right resources, rather than slapping them with code enforcement fines.
“This person is a friendly face reaching out to say, ‘Hey, this has come up on our radar. What can we do to help you?’” Eaton said.
Housing advocates say that getting vacant properties occupied again could make a big difference in New Bedford’s housing crisis. Adding to the supply will help keep prices down, they say.
New high-rise developments can’t be the city’s only strategy to create more housing, Amaral said.
“For every project like that, there are a bunch of these [vacant] single-family homes, or multi-family homes, that could be pretty quick renovations,” he said. “It’s detail-oriented and time-intensive to go one unit at a time throughout the city, but we have to be doing everything we can, because the price of housing has been going up.”
Houses languish after an owner dies
Many properties are vacant because the owner died. Things can get messy from there.
Even if the property owner left a will, the heirs might disagree on what to do with the property, or they might not know what to do. And if the owner didn’t leave a will, it’s sometimes unclear who the property should pass on to.
It can take years to resolve those questions in probate court, if someone even bothers to file the case. Sometimes the heirs don’t live locally or don’t have any interest in taking responsibility for the property.
This is where a vacant property manager could help, Amaral said. Right now, the city doesn’t have the time to research these complex cases, let alone reach out to heirs personally.
“Sometimes, it’s just a matter of connecting that family with some resources,” Amaral said.
Getting to these properties sooner prevents them from deteriorating and racking up code violations. The manager could help the heirs make a decision about what to do with the property before that happens.
For cases stuck in probate, the manager could be the “squeaky wheel” that gets the case moving, Amaral said.
A large Victorian house loomed ahead as Amaral drove north on Pleasant Street towards Bedford Street.
“Here’s 217,” he said as he pulled over near the property. “Where to start?”
Most of the yellow paint on the three-story house has chipped away. Caution tape warns that the porch isn’t safe to walk on. The backyard is overgrown. Some of the windows are boarded up and there’s a hole near the roof. Inside, the building has been gutted.
“We’ve tolerated it for a little too long, and particularly at a time when people are clamoring for apartments to rent, you could house a lot of people there,” Amaral said.
The property is an investment gone wrong.
Senesie Kabba, a Stoughton-based developer, bought the house in 2019 for $135,000 with plans to remodel it, make it his home, and rent out the other two units in the building. But the pandemic halted construction, and then the financing expired, Kabba told The Light.
“The property became very unattractive for lenders and became unaffordable,” he said. “It became just a complete nightmare.”
The project is going to be $128,000 over budget, Kabba said, in large part because of historical preservation requirements he wasn’t aware of when he bought the property.
Amaral suggested that Kabba might be better off cashing out and letting someone else take over the project. But Kabba is determined to finish it himself. He said he found a contractor to work with who will split the profit with him — the only way he’ll be able to get the job done.
In a city where it’s already difficult to turn a profit in real estate development, it can be hard to make the math work on properties like this one. Rents in the city are rock-bottom compared to the rest of the state, but construction is just as expensive.
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Rehabilitating a run-down property comes with added costs, especially if it has to comply with certain sprinkler, building, or energy codes, Amaral said. Rising construction costs in recent years haven’t helped. Certain buildings can also come with back taxes and other code enforcement fees from years of neglect.
“They’re not low-hanging fruit — there’s a complicated story,” Amaral said.
The vacant property manager can step in to connect struggling developers with local contractors and property managers, he said. They could also share information on financing or set up meetings with other city departments.
Without a city employee nudging them, some property owners might be content to leave their property empty. Rising local property values could incentivize them to sit on their investment and pay the vacant building fee every year, said Councilor Scott Lima, a real estate agent.
“The fee is probably appropriate at the level it’s at, but some people have deep pockets and don’t care,” he said.
Amaral estimates that at least 100 units in the city are vacant because the owner just doesn’t want the trouble of being a landlord. Maybe they were burned by bad tenants in the past, or they’re aging and don’t have the time or energy for it anymore.
In those cases, the vacant property manager could refer the owner to local property managers or help them decide if selling it is the better option, Amaral said. That people-oriented work will be a big part of the job.
Someone with a legal or a construction background could do well in this role, Amaral said, but they don’t have to come from either of those industries.
“We’re not really excluding anybody,” he said. “In this case, it’s like, who’s motivated and has enough of a skill set to drag this initiative off the ground?”
Amaral expects that the city will see meaningful progress on its vacant properties within six months to a year after the coordinator is hired. In the meantime, he invited residents to contact his office about vacant properties in their neighborhood.
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