This is how a derelict house comes down: a month of letters, a month of fines and a court case, all following years of lax housing-code enforcement.
Smithfield admits it has a property-blight problem, but cleaning it up might be an even bigger one.
The town is preparing to crack down on neglected and uninhabitable properties, but doing so could cost thousands of dollars and end up displacing residents.
Over the last few months, Smithfield leaders have discussed dilapidated houses in town, many in East Smithfield. Councilman Marlon Lee, who represents East Smithfield, said he drove around his district one afternoon and found more than 70 homes he considered uninhabitable. Town Manager Michael Scott said a separate review of East Smithfield by the town’s code-enforcement officer revealed 26 properties that were unsafe condition. A third of those are rental properties, Scott said; the rest are privately owned and occupied or vacant.
Scott said the town has identified 10 properties that are in the worst condition and is targeting those first. What that could mean is a lengthy bureaucratic process that could end with the town spending thousands to tear down a property while hurting feelings all around.
Scott said the process is a series of three letters sent to property owners spaced 10 days apart. At the end of 30 days, property owners have to show some plan o bring their homes up to code. If they don’t show up to a meeting with the town or don’t have a plan, the town will start fining them. If the fines go unpaid, Smithfield will get the courts involved, up to taking ownership of the homes and tearing them down.
Condemning just one property could cost as much as $5,000 to $10,000, Scott said, adding that the town budgets only $25,000 annually. The manager told the council not to expect gratitude from property owners.
“Chances are there will be complaints, and you will receive them,” Scott said. “So I want to make sure everyone has a thorough understanding of how we’re moving forward.”
The council appears committed to dealing with the properties now rather than letting them languish undisturbed for another few years. Councilman Perry Harris said he drove East Smithfield with Lee last month and was surprised by the condition of some of the homes.
“I have to tell you, I was taken aback,” Harris said. “Several houses in (Lee’s) district, the doors were wide open; the house I looked into had no flooring. Cars are on the street without tags or without current tags.”
Harris said the problem wasn’t confined to East Smithfield. “I don’t want to use the word ‘blighted,’ but there are probably those that detract from the overall appearance of Smithfield,” he said, suggesting that many of the homes had been inherited. “The reality is we need to clean them up.”
One problem with ordering residents to fix their homes is that most don’t choose dilapidation; they simply don’t have the thousands of dollars needed for repairs. Harris said he is working to find an answer to that, talking with a number of private individuals about helping residents fix up their homes.
“I think it’s important for us as a council to support this,” Harris said.
Lee said he wants Smithfield to make sure the indelicate task isn’t a strong-arm effort from the town. He said he’s received a number of calls, including several from one of the property owners already contacted by the town. The individual, he said, accused town attorney Bob Spence of nasty letters and phone calls.
“I was appalled at what he said,” Lee said.
Spence denied treating anyone unprofessionally but said the town needs to have the stomach for complaints, or it needs to find another way to clean up the town.
“It was not a nasty letter,” Spence said. “It said you need to fix your property, or you will be fined. If you send people letters like that, some will call and complain. When you deal with some of these people, they’re not going to like it, and they’re going to complain.”
Harris said the town fostered the environment that led to widespread noncompliance. And he added that strong reactions from property owners are to be expected.
“This is going to be controversial,” Harris said. “We have not done our job; we have not kept people in compliance. This is a change, but we need to be serious about this. We need to treat people with respect, but firm.”