August 13, 2013

Zoppo-Sassu: No more lip service on blight

A press release from City Council hopeful Ellen Zoppo-Sassu on the blight issue:

Meaningful Code Enforcement is Way More than Reporting Blight and Removing Graffiti
Background Information
During my terms on the City Council from 2001-2007, code enforcement and reduction of blight was a key bipartisan focus. Councilmen Ron Burns, Craig Minor and Kevin McCauley, among others, spent many hours visiting residents living in unsafe or hazardous conditions.

From that, many positive policies were enacted including redefining blight and updating the city's property maintenance code.

The Origin of Code Enforcement
Many department heads and community groups such as the Greater Bristol Property Owners Association and the Federal Hill Association spent months discussing these issues in order to streamline the complaint process, appeals process, and communications among departments that has enforcement capability. It was interesting to note that from these joint meetings, that occurred during these city employees' regular work days and thus cost the taxpayer nothing, a list of targeted properties emerged. 

Not to many people's surprise, the Fire Marshal, the Sanitation engineer assigned to housing code from the Bristol-Burlington Health District, the Zoning Enforcement Officer, the Police Department, city lawyers and Solid Waste employees from Public Works all had certain addresses in common.The Bristol Housing Authority also provided expertise as to what was required for Section 8 inspections.  It was very easy to thus coordinate responses and systematically approach problem properties and create lists for property owners to resolve their code issues.

Many of these properties were NOT owned by local residents who owned real estate as an investment and who are thus "invested" in the community.  In fact, we had seen a large influx of out-of-town investors who found Bristol to be an attractive community due to its stable tax rate and affordable and abundant supply of multi-unit housing. These absentee landlords were squeezing every last drop of income from these properties with little to no maintenance, and flipping them between various LLCs.

The only way to get the attention of these types of predatory investors is to hit them in the wallet and pocketbooks. Code enforcement accomplished that, especially when the police department added code enforcement to a police officer's assignment. It also eliminated a large amount of liability from the city, which is charged by state statute to inspect multi-unit properties annually. This is rarely accomplished due to the volume of inspections that would need to be done. By targeting the most egregious of the properties, the city was at least assured that the most hazardous of conditions were addressed.

Code Enforcement Over the Last Six Years
It is my understanding that code enforcement is now a watered down version of what it once was and priority is not assigned to it. While there are still some enforcement officials that meet, attendance from the original group is occasional, nor have any of the current city councilmen or the current mayor, who put himself as the code enforcement liaison, regularly attend the meetings.

I am sincerely puzzled by Mr. Cockayne's great unveil of his blight initiative. He has represented the Second District, including the West End, for 6 years, and his two major initiatives are a website contact to report blight and timely graffiti removal?  

I do have some good news for him - the definition of "blight" and how to file a complaint is currently already on the city's website under the Frequently Asked Questions section.
So now that blight is all set, I would like to suggest that we turn our attention to the real solutions our problem areas.

Code enforcement is a city's umbrella insurance policy. It can have a positive impact on many aspects of the city and its quality of life. Let's consider the West End - what many optimistically term an area "still in transition. Yet, in the immediate radius of the West and School St. intersection, there are a scarce number of local owners who are not selective about tenants, just as long as they pay.

The loitering, along with public drug use and sales, have not created a welcoming environment for customers or residents. The housing density in this area is too much, with too little to support it in the way of parking and green space. There are some great retail spaces in this neighborhood but if you cannot attract customers, how is the city's BDA or Chamber of Commerce supposed to place businesses that will endure? Niche businesses such as South Side Meat Market, Valle's Shoe Repair, Hamelin's and others are the anchors. How much longer will they be able to fight the tide without substantive action beyond well-intentioned people showing up to do clean-ups in front of cameras?
Departments working together to share information and resources are the best tool we have yet none of this has been effectively implemented and in fact, elements of it have been dismantled. I recall that in 2007, in just over one year, a certain property in the West End accumulated 105 calls-for-service, along with various code violations. The code enforcement group at the time, along with the police, took several actions which resulted in the problem being resolved. 

Landlords who refuse to lease out commercial or residential properties so they can claim tax write-offs should have to pay fines to address the issues that come with vacant properties. Or they can be persuaded to sell them if the cost is too high for them to abate, or the City can start a public-private fund to start purchasing the problem properties and solve the issue through re-use, re-sale, condemnation, demolition, or reduction in the number of available units. 

I would also suggest that Mr. Cockayne peruse the West End Study that was approved in 2011. This is a phenomenal planning tool that was created by neighborhood stakeholders and has several substantive recommendations, none of which were addressed in Mr. Cockayne's Plan. Nothing is more frustrating that elected officials who go through the motions with no substance. Different components of this plan should be front and center at every Council meeting, and every Council committee should be attacking the areas of which they have jurisdiction, as well as having community conversations with stakeholders such as the business owners, schools, Chamber, social service organizations and responsible property owners.

But whenever people start to talk about real solutions, that require real investment, both financially and emotionally, this Council gets nervous about public reaction and they collectively put on their "we can't spend money because the taxpayers will be angry" hats. 

Realistically, I think they are already angry. As a homeowner in a diverse neighborhood, I know that my neighbors have a zero tolerance for some of the associated patterns that result from absentee landlords. Negligent landlords who rent without benefit of tenant screening contribute to the dozens of registered sex offenders who live in Bristol, many of them in these units. The other patterns of crime rate, police calls for service, back taxes, unpaid water bills, large numbers of children coming into the community who qualify for free and reduced lunch,risk to firefighters and other emergency workers going into unsafe buildings, unlicensed animals, cases of animal abuse, and many other factors cannot be overlooked with the big picture. 

If we want to fix the West End, Federal Hill, or any of other of our neighborhoods which have elements that are contrary to what we want to define as strong and vibrant communities, then it's time to put actions to our words and not just worry about the superficial issues that do not define the problem. 

I look forward to being a candidate for City Council this fall, and discussing my thoughts and ideas in as many candidate forums and meetings as we can schedule between now and November 5th.

Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at

1 comment:

dennis douglas said...

I would like to thank you for the efforts youve got produced in writing this article.

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