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Slumbusters
Team approach targets city’s problem properties
WHO YA GONNA CALL?
September 2, 2007

By Matthew Stone CORRESPONDENT
Reprinted from the Worcester Telegram article

WORCESTER— District 4 City Councilor Barbara G. Haller maintains that change is afoot in the city when it comes to cracking down on delinquent landlords and targeting what she calls persistent problem properties.

“I think we’re on to something in the city,” Ms. Haller said.

In the past year, she said, a number of problem properties she had been monitoring in her district, which includes the rental properties and lodging house-dominated Main South neighborhood, have turned around. Some landlords have cleaned up their acts, bringing their properties into compliance with health code regulations. Others have ejected tenants known to cause disturbances in their neighborhoods.

 
District 4 City Councilor Barbara G. Haller, shown standing along Sycamore Street, says problems in this area and several others in the city have decreased with the efforts of the reorganized Code Enforcement division that combines data with the police and fire departments and helps identify and target problem properties. (T&G Staff / CHRISTINE PETERSON)

“Where there have been persistent problem properties, for the most part there’s been positive resolution of the problems,” Ms. Haller said. “I don’t believe that’s been coincidental.”

The turnaround at some notorious properties comes a year after the city released plans to step up housing code enforcement efforts, with plans for a new hire to take charge of a new division within the city’s Code Enforcement operation. Since being named the city’s director of housing enforcement last December, Amanda M. Wilson has begun overseeing efforts to coordinate work between multiple departments to identify and target properties that repeatedly appear on city and neighborhood association radar screens for causing problems.

The Housing Enforcement division is a reorganization of resources already in place within Code Enforcement.

The Problem Property Resolution Team, which has representatives from Code Enforcement and the city’s police and fire departments, encourages collaboration between the departments in hopes of helping the city identify problem properties as well as those on the verge of falling into that category.

“We’re working independently from each other and we really want to have a unified enforcement team,” said Ms. Wilson, who oversees PPRT.

The property team also includes housing inspector John Nordberg, Fire Inspector John N. Danna, police Sgt. Anthony M. Petrone and police Officer Michael A. Girardi. The officials expect to take up their property team duties full time once the team takes more definitive shape.

The Problem Property Resolution Team builds on the City Manager’s Enforcement Team, a full-time squad of health and code inspectors that has been in place since the early 1990s. Unlike CMET, the new property team features a permanent police component and focuses on joint inspections rather than separate inspections by officials from each division.

“What we took is what we already had in place under CMET,” Ms. Wilson said. “We reinvigorated that and added the police back into the formula.”

The team will receive its next boost in the coming months when the city expects to roll out a data-oriented computer program that combines police, fire, and Code Enforcement databases. The software will make it easier for officials from all departments to identify properties that have been persistently called to the attention of multiple city departments, officials say.

A housing code inspector’s access to police and fire data, for example, can alert the Housing Enforcement division that a particular property in violation of safety code also has received police attention for noise disturbances and drug activity, information that previously would not have been available to housing inspectors.

The software will identify a set of factors that a property might meet to be considered a problem property. The number of times police have been called for noise complaints, the number of Housing Court disputes attached to a property, the number of health and fire code violations, and other factors will be used to generate a “number rating,” Ms. Wilson said.

“Properties will be able to get a number rating based on violations in the past, based on involvement from other departments and the severity of that involvement,” she said.

The properties that meet a particular threshold could attract the Problem Property Resolution Team’s attention before they become major nuisances, Ms. Wilson said, and allow the team “more time with the property owners and talk to them about, ‘Listen, the occupants you have, you need to evict them, because they’ve been problematic.’ ”

Officials say property owners need to take responsibility for the activities of their tenants.

“It’s ultimately their responsibility,” Officer Girardi said.

After years in which landlords have ignored Code Enforcement and Housing Court orders to clean up their properties for code violations, Ms. Haller is convinced that the city’s actions are getting property owners to acknowledge their responsibilities.

“The message has been getting out to those owners that you can run but you can’t hide,” Ms. Haller said.

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