The Oxford Dictionary defines “Initiative” as “an act or strategy intended to resolve a difficulty or improve a situation; a fresh approach to something,” an apt description for The Attorney General’s Abandoned Housing Initiative (AHI). AHI is a partnership among the Attorney General (AG), municipalities, the courts, and private organizations, including CDCs, to address seriously blighted properties whose owners are neglecting them.
As described on the AG’s website, blighted properties, abandoned by their owners in residential areas, create safety hazards, attract crime, and lower property values. AHI uses the enforcement authority of the State Sanitary Code to turn these properties around. Working in close partnership with cities and towns, the AGO seeks out delinquent owners of abandoned residential property and encourages them to voluntarily repair their properties and make them secure. If owners refuse, then AGO attorneys will petition the relevant court to appoint a receiver to bring the property up to code.
One such property, a single-family home at 140 Beech Street in Holyoke, had been abandoned years before. The bank was taking no action on its mortgage, the roof was failing, and all the plumbing was stolen. When the Springfield Housing Court appointed OneHolyoke CDC as Receiver and they first made entry, job one was removing over 100 used hypodermic needles laying throughout the interior. The CDC’s cost estimate to simply bring the house to compliance with the State Sanitary Code exceeded what they could sell it for. Enter the City of Holyoke’s Office of Community Development, which provided the needed subsidy using Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to upgrade the home into an attractive, livable, and marketable residence. Once on the path to almost certain demolition, this beautiful home will be sold this spring to a young family of four, who could only access homeownership through a program like this.
Here’s how Receivership works. When a municipality invites the AG’s office to intervene, and the court concurs, the AG will invite the owner to meet, with the hope of reaching an agreement to address the property’s repair needs. If these negotiations fail, and owners do not respond to complaints, the State Sanitary Code permits the AG and/or the municipality to petition the court to appoint a receiver. The State Code allows the receiver to place a lien against the property for all costs incurred by the receiver during the project, which is given a priority over all existing liens, except municipal liens. At the conclusion of the receivership, which is generally six months to one year, the owner may reimburse the receiver for costs and clear the lien. If the owner cannot or will not pay the costs, the receiver can foreclose on the lien, and the property is sold at auction to the highest bidder.
The need for aggressive action on blighted properties persists, as some communities have still not recovered fully from the effects of the foreclosure crisis. When Attorney General Maura Healey announced the expansion of AHI in 2016, she noted that “in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, the rehabilitation of abandoned properties is the next important phase of our recovery for families and our communities. Abandoned properties are public safety hazards, reduce property values, and hinder economic development.” AHI operates in 88 cities and towns statewide.
The success of AHI in Holyoke is one example of the effectiveness of targeted, collaborative effort. Michael Moriarty, the Director of OneHolyoke CDC, cites their role as a Receiver for 140 Beech Street in Holyoke as one of the proudest moments of his career. Thanks to a resolute Attorney General, determined municipal officials, proactive courts, and responsible receivers stepping up, municipalities have a strong tool to tackle a sometimes-intractable problem, and offer opportunities to families needing quality, affordable homes.