Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Council ventures into the vacant houses weeds

These two houses on Kenyon Avenue, while both vacant,
had very different stories.

Tuesday's Plainfield
City Council meeting veered off into the weeds in a discussion of the establishment of a "Vacant and Abandoned Properties List" (R 378-16) as part of the effort to clean up the city's large stock of such properties.

Eight years after the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008, Plainfield is finally getting a handle on the hundreds of properties that went into foreclosure as a result.

With the real estate market paralyzed and neighborhoods suffering from hundreds of vacant properties -- some of them left unattended to -- the Mapp administration proposed an ordinance early in Mayor Mapp's term that would create an inventory of such properties and set up a process for monitoring them and encouraging the banks and mortgage companies that hold foreclosed properties to get them on the market and occupied once again.

All this, of course, is easier said than done.

Deputy City Administrator for Economic Development Carlos Sanchez reported to the Council that a consultant has been hired and a preliminary list of approximately 300 properties prepared, from which about 65 are proposed for certification. Once certified, the ordinance requires the properties be registered with the City by the owners (individuals, banks or mortgage companies).

A graduated fee schedule is intended to encourage owners to get the properties repaired (if necessary), on the market and occupied once again. Though the city has its own ordinance, Sanchez indicated the program would proceed under the state's law on such properties.

The problem has deep roots in Plainfield.

Under the late Mayor Al McWilliams, 141 vacant and abandoned properties were identified in the late 1990s in a survey by Rutgers interns. A large number of those were included in a scattered-site housing proposal which finally resulted in about twenty new homes being constructed throughout the city. That program foundered on the developer's financial difficulties, only to be resolved after an acrimonious legal fight because the developer had pledged properties for which he did not hold title as collateral on loans for the project.

After the speculative housing bubble collapsed in 2008, then-mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs thought the solution was to organize bus tours of the city's foreclosed properties for prospective investors. That effort went nowhere.

The discussion last evening was fueled by an innocent question by resident Jim Spear concerning the signs that often appear on vacant and foreclosed properties. It was discussing that question that led the Council into the weeds.

Part of the problem is that the actual status of a property is not readily discernible to the casual passerby.

Take for example two houses on Kenyon Avenue at the corner of Randolph Road. One, with a graceful colonial facade, was in foreclosure and vacant for years before finally being sold a year or so ago. During that long stretch, the bank paid the property taxes, but the grounds were not well-maintained -- the city occasionally cutting the grass and weeds.

The other property, next door, is on the corner of Randolph Road. While vacant, I am told by neighbors it is neither in foreclosure nor technically "abandoned". It is the focus of a nasty dispute between the husband and wife who formerly occupied it. This property, too, often looks overgrown and untended.

Consider this: not every vacant property is in foreclosure. Not every property in foreclosure is vacant.

Add to this that whereabouts of owners of truly vacant properties is often elusive.

Then, there are the properties that are just caught up in the real estate process -- an employee might be subject to a corporate transfer, in which case a relocation company takes ownership of the (now vacant) property pending its sale to a new homeowner.

Likewise, Mr. Spear's question about signage covers a host of situations.

Courts require that notices of foreclosure be physically posted on the property (hence some signs on front doors).

For properties that are "winterized" so the water pipes won't freeze (whether by relocation companies, banks or mortgage servicing companies), a sign so indicating is standard procedure (sometimes in addition to warning lights that indicate a problem inside the property), and are posted by property maintenance companies.

Mr. Spear's point that these are indications of a likely property to be stripped of its copper wiring and pipes, is well made.

It seems to me that the current push to computerize property records (also discussed less than fruitfully at the Council meeting) would go a long way to getting a handle on the situation -- if the City could be made aware of foreclosures as they are happening in the courts. And, once an inventory of vacant and abandoned properties is established, to be able to monitor it more regularly.

Alas, some of this will have to await a more friendly Council, expected after January.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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