The city struggles to deal with abandoned buildings
May 04, 2010
Cara Pavlak moved to Hartford from Maine to attend Trinity College and fell in love with the city. Now, she’s working for HART (Hartford Areas Rally Together) compiling a list of blighted buildings.
The most recent iteration of Pavlak’s list includes more than 200 addresses.
“If you give this list to the city they’ll freak out and say ‘What are you doing to us? We don’t have enough staff for this,’” says Tara Parrish, lead organizer for HART.
Linda Bayer of Hartford 2000, representing neighborhood groups throughout the city, says Hartford is required by law to compile a list of vacant buildings, but hasn’t done it for years.
Gus Espinoza, project director for the Department of Development Services, confirms the last complete list of 160 vacant buildings was compiled in 2006 because the city doesn’t have the staff to update it. The department that handles licenses and inspections has gone from 90 employees in 2002 to 30 today. There are only 12 inspectors in the entire department.
HART has joined forces with Hartford 2000 and the Hartford Preservation Alliance to pressure the city to not only update its vacant-property list but also to be more aggressive enforcing a strengthened 2008 anti-blight ordinance that allows fines of $100 per day for each violation of building codes.
“If you’ve got five violations, you’ve got $500 a day accumulating,” says Parrish. “It gives a new incentive to fix the property or get rid of it.”
Not necessarily, says Edison Silva, acting director of Licenses & Inspections, who sees the anti-blight ordinance as a last resort. Just because you fine an owner $60,000 doesn’t mean you’ll collect that fine. In fact, you almost certainly won’t, Silva says. Once the fines reach half the value of a building, the city moves to foreclose. But then what?
“How do we attract developers in this [economic] environment?” asks Silva.
It is Espinoza who is charged with finding ways to answer that question.
“The end goal is to turn these properties around and make them productive parts of the community,” says Espinoza.
He says he makes decisions every day about whether owners will do what they say they will to rescue a building.
“You’re looking at me telling me you’re going to work with me,” says Espinoza. “I’m making a call that I believe you or I don’t believe you.”
In Silva’s office on Constitution Plaza, Espinoza pulls out a three-ring binder with color photos of dozens of properties.
“36 Benton St., another one at risk,” he says, propping up the binder. “We came upon this property being controlled by addicts, cleaned everything up and secured it. We’re monitoring it until the bank finalizes foreclosure.”
“18 Bliss St. An abandoned structure, now somebody’s home,” says Espinoza. “19 Bushnell. For a long time we couldn’t figure out who was in charge. Another success, turned around.”
Silva knows city residents who live day after day with boarded up and decaying buildings are frustrated. But he insists his department is doing everything it can, given its limitations.
“The truth is we don’t have the resources [to do more],” says Silva. “At the end of the day, people don’t want to pay more taxes.”