By Luke Bronin and Neil O’Leary
In every Connecticut city and many Connecticut towns, you can find neighborhoods weighed down by blight – collapsed roofs, boarded windows, graffiti, overgrown vegetation. Sometimes it’s just a single blighted property, standing out among well-cared-for homes and businesses. Sometimes it’s property after property, whole blocks that have fallen victim to the contagion of unaddressed blight. Wherever it exists, blight is a major quality of life issue in Connecticut communities.
In Hartford and in Waterbury, we’ve made concerted efforts to combat blight, and we’re making progress. But with additional legal tools, we could do much more. In the next few days, the General Assembly has a chance to pass two bills that would make a big difference, without costing the state any money: SB1070, An Act Concerning Abandoned and Blighted Property Stewardship, and HB7277, An Act Concerning the Creation of Land Bank Authorities. We urge the General Assembly to pass both bills.
The Blighted Property Stewardship bill, also known as “receivership,” introduces an important new tool to Connecticut. Receivership allows stakeholders to petition the court directly to address blight in the community. Under the bill that’s already passed the Senate, the owner of the blighted property will always have the opportunity to address the blight first. But if the owner fails to act – which is all too common, especially with out-of-town landlords – the court can appoint a local non-profit or community entity to step in and stabilize the property.
Without receivership, communities often have to wait for lengthy and unnecessary foreclosure process and a change in ownership before the work of rehabilitating a severely blighted vacant property can even begin. Receivership enables residents, community-based non-profits, and local governments to get access to a vacant, blighted property faster, and get to work stabilizing and rehabilitating the property – while resolving ownership issues later.
The Land Bank bill, House Bill 7277, goes hand in hand with the stewardship bill. Land banks have been used effectively in many cities around the country to help communities take control of vacant, deteriorated, and foreclosed properties that are truly abandoned. A land bank with adequate funding, flexible and nimble acquisition and disposition powers, and a strong tie with the community can be an effective and efficient tool to acquire the property, eliminate the blight, and put the property back into productive use consistent with community goals and priorities.
It’s important to note that the Land Bank bill does not include any municipal mandates, and does not expand eminent domain authority in any way. Rather, it would allow municipalities to create an entity dedicated to holding and financing the improvement of blighted property, often hand in hand with residents or other private parties willing to make investments in the community. While a pilot program has already been authorized for the City of Hartford, there is no general enabling legislation allowing Connecticut municipalities or groups of municipalities to establish land banks. This bill would change that.
Hartford has made real progress in the fight against blight over the last three years, with hundreds fewer vacant, abandoned, blighted properties. The city passed an Anti-Blight & Property-Maintenance Ordinance, and created a Blight Remediation Team to focus exclusively on combating blight. The model is simple: Fix It Up, Pay It Up, or Give It Up. Under that model, the team works with responsible, good-faith owners to help repair their properties. But with bad-faith owners who have no interest or stake in the community, we use our enforcement tools aggressively – imposing fines and liens. This summer, Hartford’s non-profit land bank, established as a pilot program, will get to work. The city is already preparing to transfer dozens of vacant, blighted properties to the Land Bank in the coming months.
The City of Waterbury has also been aggressive in tackling blight, and created a Blight Task Force in 2012 to coordinate property remediation and redevelopment efforts among various city agencies. Stiffer penalties including automatic court appearances for blight code violators are in place, absentee landlords are required to register the properties they own and provide viable contact information, foreclosing entities are required to have a local property management company maintain any properties in foreclosure, and an aggressive tax auction process is paying dividends.
But even with all these proactive processes in place, the problems surrounding property abandonment persist. Fighting blight is about improving quality of life, protecting homeowners and other property-owners who invest in and care for their properties, maintaining and growing the tax base, and beautifying our neighborhoods. When we talk with our residents, blight is a common concern, and that’s why we’ve prioritized this work – both in our cities, and in our conversations with legislators.
We urge the General Assembly to support HB7277 and SB1070, so that our cities and communities across Connecticut can do more to fight blight and keep neighorhoods strong.
Luke Bronin is the Mayor of Hartford and Neil O’Leary is the Mayor of Waterbury.