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    City Takes Aim At Blighted Home

    June 4, 2010 (from New Haven Independent)

    Asbestos-laden siding that fell near an infant’s home has been carted away, after the city swung a new “stick” at the owner of an East Shore home that’s been falling apart for years.

    The threatened penalty—a $100 fine per day, per code violation—was issued last month in a civil citation to the owners of 9 Doty Place. The letter

    marked the first time the city has enforced a beefed-up anti-blight ordinance signed into law last September.

    The crackdown came after years of taking a more “gentle” approach with negligent homeowners, said Erik Johnson, director of the city’s anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative.

    The house is owned by Francis Sherman, who’s 68 years old. After living a lifetime in the home, she moved out three years ago, when her husband died. Sherman’s daughter, Michelle Jones, said her father grew up with Depression-era frugality.

    “Ever since my father was in that house, all he did was collect things and buy things. It just got to the point where it got out of control,” she said. He fixed up the house himself, spending as little money as he could. “After a while, those cheap improvements started to fall apart.”

    The house sits on a quiet, suburban block near the entrance to Lighthouse Point Park. It sticks out as a boarded-up eyesore, dragging down property values on a block with well-trimmed hedges and freshly painted homes.

    Jones said the family has secured a loan, and finally has the cash to make improvements. She did not enjoy being the first subject of the city’s new crackdown.

    “We want to fix up the house and give it back to my mother so that she has something to be proud of,” Jones said. “We ask for help, and we get screwed.”

    From neighbor Jason Gomez’s point of view, however, the fixup was years overdue.

    Gomez moved in next door to the house five years ago. The house next door was in poor shape then, he said. It got worse three years ago, when the family, the Shermans, moved out. They left behind a dilapidated structure that was literally falling apart.

    One day, a storm window came crashing into Gomez’s yard, he said. On another day, a rooftop antenna landed like a “lawn dart” on his property. Pieces of asbestos-laden siding fell off, too.

    Gomez said he’s concerned for his 3-year-old daughter’s safety: “We have to watch her and the dog really carefully,” he said. He keeps her away from his neighbors.

    Aside from the dangerous projectiles, the house next door has been overrun with rodents, according to neighbors and city officials. Rats and mice enter and leave the basement through a gaping hole in the foundation wall. Raccoons and birds nested in the abandoned rooms.

    Gomez said he made 200 calls to LCI over the course of five years.

    For years, LCI took a softer approach with the owner, Francis Sherman, who’s now 68 years old. The city even bought her a hot water furnace when she was living without heat.

    When Sherman moved out, the family removed the city-issued furnace. It’s being kept in storage, according to the family.

    Over the years, the city asked Sherman to clean up the home, but never threatened any kind of penalty.

    “We tried to gently work with them,” Johnson said.

    The city repeatedly asked her to mow the weeds that had overrun the lot, but she only mowed five times in five years, according to her neighbor. Last year, LCI told Sherman to fix up the house or put it up for sale. She put up a For Sale sign, but never made the sale.

    Johnson (pictured), who took over as LCI chief in January, decided to take a more “aggressive” approach.

    City officials summoned two reporters to City Hall Thursday to talk about the new tough-on-blight approach, which Johnson said is a policy shift for his department. He sees 9 Doty Place as a test case for this newfound aggressiveness.

    In a letter sent May 5 to the homeowner, the city issued its first civil citation under the new anti-blight and property maintenance ordinance. The law gives the city more teeth in going after neglectful landlords, including levying fines and seeking foreclosure. Click here to read more about the law, which was introduced by Aldermen Roland Lemar and Joey Rodriguez.

    The letter ordered Francis Sherman to address the following code violations: asbestos shingles, boarded windows and doors, unsound foundation walls, rodent infestation, and “dilapidated and decaying structure.” The letter gave the owner 10 days after receipt of the letter to clean up the place. Then, on May 18, fines would begin to accrue in the amount of $100 per violation, per day, for as long as each violation continues.

    According to the city, the new threat spurred the long-neglectful landlord into action. For the past three years, Francis Sherman would visit the home, but did not take any major action to make it safe. On Thursday, a cleanup crew removed the asbestos-laden siding from three sides of the house.

    By the end of the week, workers are expected to remove the roof shingles.

    Johnson held up the case as an example of success.

    “Government swung its stick and someone responded,” he said.

    Michelle Jones, Francis Sherman’s daughter, fiercely disagreed. She said she and her mom have been trying to fix up the house for “years.” They recently landed a $177,000 home improvement loan, and that’s why they’re able to fix it up now, she said.

    She said her efforts have been thwarted by her neighbor, Gomez. When the crews took down the asbestos-laden siding, they took down three of four sides, but could not reach the side closest to Gomez’s house, because he refused to grant them access to his property to do so.

    Gomez, frustrated by five years of unsafe conditions, said he won’t let them on his property until he’s sure the city will levy the entire fine. Fines started accruing on 9 Doty Place on May 18. If 30 days go by without addressing all the violations, a lien will be placed on the home to recoup the money. According to the new law, liens are placed every 30 days, up to 90 days, at which point the city will pursue foreclosure.

    The city has the right to waive or reduce fines if the violations are abated. Johnson said he’s not sure if that will happen—it depends on the work that remains to be done. Johnson said the goal of the ordinance isn’t to take people’s money or homes, but to spur them to fix them up.

    “They got a loan to do their house over, which his what the city wants,” he said.

    There are 900 vacant homes in the city, out of a total 18,000 to 19,000 homes, according to LCI. The city has sent letters to about a couple dozen other blighted homes, but none has come to the point of levying fines, LCI officials said.

    East Shore Alderwoman Arlene DePino brought a thick folder of papers about 9 Doty Place to the press avail at City Hall. She said she’s gotten many phone calls over the last five years about the property. She said she hoped the city’s new crackdown would finally bring neighbors relief.

    “This is years of frustration these people have been living through,” she said.

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