With hundreds of abandoned properties scattered throughout the city, mayor Jose “Joey” Torres wants the city council to pass an ordinance granting the administration power to take possession of them.
If passed the ordinance will allow the administration to initiate summary proceeding against the neglectful property owner, whose parcels appear on the city’s abandoned properties list, in the New Jersey Superior Court to take possession of the abandoned dwelling.
“What we’re trying to do now is to begin to look at the list and convey those properties to entities who can then develop those properties and put them back on the tax rolls,” said Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large.
Once a complaint is filed the owner, mortgage holder, or lien holder, has to submit a rehabilitation plan to the city before the property is removed from the list.
“The only thing that will take them out of this list,” said Torres, “is that they have to come to the public officers, which is in this case is a construction code official, with a viable rehabilitation plan.”
The property owner must also demonstrate that he has the funds to complete the rehabilitation and not just submit a piece of paper. An owner will be required to post a bond equal to 125-percent of the amount needed to rehabilitate the property as determined by a public officer, according to the ordinance.
After posting the bond, the property owner must notify the city of progress being made with the rehabilitation through a quarterly report. If the owner decides to abandon plans to rehabilitate the property, the city will, via the court, take possession of the property and the bond money, then either designate a party to complete the rehabilitation work or do it itself, reads the ordinance.
Torres’ plan as he promised during the campaign season is to take possession of the blighted properties and sell them to private owners to rehabilitate and restore neighborhoods. After taking possession, the city will auction off the properties either individually or bundle them into packages for buyers to bid on.
“How does the city determine the minimum for a bid, is there a minimum?” asked Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman, during Tuesday’s discussion of the plan.
“The minimum bid, after we take possession?” rehashed Torres. “The bidding price will come after we sit down and see what is the cost to rehabilitate,” said Torres, “so the lower the cost to rehabilitate the higher the bid, the higher the cost to rehabilitate, the lower the bid.”
Introducing another dimension to the abandoned properties problem, Alex Mendez, councilman at-large, asked Torres how he intends to ensure banks take care of foreclosed properties just as they do in other towns.
Mendez said he has a friend in Wayne who is neighbor to an abandoned home, but every now and then grass is trimmed and the property is maintained despite it being empty. “They’re not coming to clean,” added Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward councilwoman.
Code enforcement will be empowered to issue fines if there’s tall grass and visible signs of abandonment, said Torres.
Cotton is hoping the city actually does something with the list this time around. Cotton, whose ward has the largest number of abandoned homes, said the previous administration began the list, but failed to bring landowners to account.
“To this day we have not taken over one abandoned property,” said Cotton.
The original abandoned properties list had somewhere around 900 homes, but an updated list has somewhere around 1,200.
This ordinance will allow the city to finally take over blighted properties, said Torres. A realist, the mayor said, “Some of it has to be torn down because it’s beyond rehabilitation.”
City officials hastily discussed the plan which includes a provision that requires the city to maintain insurance on every property it acquires, a hidden cost for taxpayers.
Reviewing plans submitted by property owners, a code enforcement officer going out to assess the rehabilitation cost of a property, and issuing tickets to unkept abandoned homes may require more staff at the Community Improvement Division, a subject one council member broached but was quickly cut off.
An optimistic Morris said the plan has potential to succeed. “I think this works,” said Morris.