Activists grapple with the city for tougher rules regarding blighted properties
By Adam Bulger
May 15, 2008
It was easy to find someone who had a problem with the vacant building on 455 Zion Street. The fire-gutted building, located within walking distance of Trinity College, is a picture of decay. The ground-floor facade was painted over in dark brown, and the front door was boarded over. From the second floor and up, the windows were open to the air.
I had barely left my car and started to take pictures of the building when a man ran up to me and asked me if I owned it. He declined to be identified, but said he owned a nearby property and offered to take me behind his property, which offered a view of the back of 455 Zion.
The property owner said the neighboring building, which had been vacant since at least 2002, now attracts nightly drug users and vagrants. He showed me where the fence in the back was broken in several different sections, allowing easy access for anyone who wanted to enter.
As we talked, a city inspector rolled up. The inspector refused to give his name (and later calls to his department for that information went unreturned), but he winced when I asked if the owner of 455 Zion could be fined for the condition of his building.
"I can't get into it," he said.
The likely reason he couldn't "get into it" is because the city's rules about managing blighted properties are stuck in a confusing limbo. For the last two years, Hartford has had a blight ordinance on the books, and community groups like Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART) have reported several blighted properties, including 455 Zion, to the city.
However, HART members say, the rules have yet to be enforced.
In 2004, HART included city council members on a tour of blighted properties in the south of Hartford. After City Councilor Ken Kennedy suggested it, HART member Jon Ney re-wrote the city's blight code, with hopes of giving force to a set of laws he considers "absolutely worthless."
Under Ney's direction, the blight ordinance was revised to include a checklist of signs of blight, including rat infestation, missing or boarded windows and attracting felony activity on the property. And all of these deficiencies are on display at the Zion property. Penalties for owners of blighted properties are outlined, stipulating that after a 45-day warning period, $100 fines (for each separate violation) will accrue daily.
The City Council passed the changes in September of 2006. Although HART members have worked with the city government to amend the rules to make them easier to apply, the city is still not using the ordinance.
"They have yet to actually use it," said HART lead organizer Tara Parrish. "They make all kinds of excuses."
As the city hesitates, some Hartford citizens act as vigilantes.
"We've been going out and taking pictures and sending them over to the department of licenses and inspections," Ney said. "We're trying to do their job for them. We've even been writing up code violations and sending them in."
In 2007, HART submitted reports on seven blighted properties. During a subsequent meeting with representatives from the city's Department of Development Services, HART was told the properties were cited under the city's building code, but not on the new blight regulations. To make it easier for the city to apply the law, Councilman Kennedy, on the advice of the HART members, removed the requirement that these properties have newspaper announcements, be served by a sheriff and other stipulations.
"They were saying it was too costly in terms of staff time to find owners and do the research that was needed," Parrish said. "The amendments streamlined some of that."
To the surprise of many, the mayor — who has been vocal about making removal of blight a priority — vetoed the revised ordinance last month. He said the legislation is "fatally flawed" and would not bear legal scrutiny.
"I didn't find out what the fatal flaws are, and I don't think the city council found out," says Gene Mayfield, a HART member and South Hartford resident.
A spokesperson from the mayor's office said the "fatal flaw" was a reference to how building owners would be notified, rules that the city office believes don't meet state legal requirements.
"Any action that the City took under the ordinance would be challengeable based on a due process claim, and the City would lose every one," Sarah Barr, the representative wrote in an e-mail.
The mayor proposed a second blight ordinance to replace the vetoed one. Many people I spoke with said they were confused about what was changed in the two versions to make it legal. However, it was clear that the revisions to the ordinance included stricter criteria for its application. For example, the presence of graffiti was enough for a blight citation earlier, but the mayor's version requires that 25 percent or more of the building has to be covered by graffiti.
A close reading of the document suggests that application of the blight laws could be severely limited. "The mayor includes a statement that said a fine can only be imposed if it is in the interest of the city," Mayfield said. "What does that mean? Who is going to decide that?"
HART has partnered with other city organizations, including Hartford 2000 and the Hartford Preservation Alliance, hoping to get tighter blight rules on the books. Advocates of strong laws argue that imposing those rules would benefit Hartford.
"This would pay for itself," Ney said. "The fines collected would go to pay for it. If the building is sold, re-developed and put back on the tax rolls at its full value, they're going to make money and people would have places to live."