Bank-owned blight builds up near Fields Corner

So far, outside of a few hotspots like Hendry Street, the blight of the foreclosure crisis in Dorchester has been restricted to the occasional boarded up house or messy lawn. But Vivian Girard of Fields Corner's Five Streets Civic Association is seeing his neighborhood edge toward a darker future and he plans to keep a finger in the dyke that holds it back.

Walking around with Girard on Five Streets' turf - which includes Charles, Leroy, Ditson, Josephine, and Westville streets to the east of Geneva Avenue - the encroachment of decay is visible.

Vivian Girard of the Five Streets Neighborhood Association in front of 225 Westville St.: Photo by Pete Stidman.Vivian Girard of the Five Streets Neighborhood Association in front of 225 Westville St.: Photo by Pete Stidman.

"I call ISD [the Inspectional Services Department] quite a bit," he says. "I think they give tickets, $25 and that's it."

At 21 Josephine, mattresses and tires litter a side yard, and empty buckets litter the front. An old couch sits on a decaying porch. Girard says he called the agent that's selling the place for the Bank of New York and she told him it would be cleaned up right away. But a week later the trash is still there.

"That's the response I get everywhere," said Girard.

There are over a dozen bank-owned properties in Girard's neighborhood, only half of which show the same kinds of neglect. Many of them are starting to sell though. On Westville Street, there have been five foreclosures this year. But two buildings have been purchased from banks. Girard himself works as a carpenter on a house on Josephine recently bought by an investor.

Accredited Home Lenders Inc. is one of the neglectful owners, with a house at 216 Westville that is normally strewn with trash. It was cited this week by ISD as a result of this article.

"All these banking and real estate people, they will take the money away but they won't give anything back to the neighborhood," said Girard. "They totally give up on the neighborhood. We have to change that mentality."

Girard draws a straight line from neighborhood blight to neighborhood crime, citing recent studies undertaken in Lowell, Mass. and the Netherlands that show evidence of blight actually causing an increase in crime.

"We know the appearance of the neighborhood has a lot to do with how people are going to behave in the neighborhood," he said. "There's not only a correlation between blight and crime, there's a causation."

On Ridgewood Street, one street over from Westville, neighbors are reeling from a fatal stabbing of a 36-year-old woman on Feb. 15. But Howard McLendon of the Ridgewood Street Neighborhood Association said his organization is careful about when they call ISD to report neglect.

"We used to call ISD more," said McLendon. "But when they come, they ticket from one end of the street to the other. There are people who are good neighbors on the street who might have something going on and they get ticketed. So now we're hesitant, except in extreme cases… For people who are poor already it makes their continued home ownership more perilous."

The crown jewel of Girard's neglect tour was a house at 225 Westville. Deutsche Bank foreclosed the property in May last year after the owner fell behind on a $340,000 mortgage. Presumably that former owner moved out. But until this week, when the Reporter made an inquiry to ISD, it was squatted by a particularly poor housekeeper.

Trash filled the side yard, back yard and back porch when the Reporter toured the area last Friday. Excrement-filled plastic bags, beer bottles, and other debris were piled up in mounds under broken windows. A peek inside from the back porch revealed an equal mess indoors, and obvious signs of a squatter's residence.

"When you see a car seat out front you know that it's not the typical family living there," said ISD's Capt. Mike Mackan, also a Dorchester resident, after prowling the neighborhood himself on Tuesday. "We're going to be boarding that up today."

ISD fined the owner of the property, Saxon Mortgage Services, $1000 for failure to register, failure to post and failure to maintain. A condemnation hearing will be held on March 5.

Mackan said the increased volume of work for his inspectors means ISD relies more on reports from people in the neighborhoods. Essentially, agents have less time to cruise the streets and see what there is to see.

"The time you spend working on your own diminishes because you're working on all these emergencies," said Mackan.

A tour of a handful of other nearby areas hard hit by foreclosures revealed an occasional trashy vacant lot or boarded up home, but little along the severity of the squatted house at 225 Westville.

At 23 Arcadia Street, owned by Larry Slotnick but boarded up, a recently-dumped engine block and back bumper rusts in a side yard next to a five car garage that is falling apart. Slotnick has already been hit with a $1,900 Clean It or Lien It fine to pay back the city for cleaning up the property and boarding up the house.

Across the street behind 34 Arcadia, owned by GRP Loan LLC, trash is piling up in a small backyard facing the street.

And at 26 Ridgewood Street, owned by Ming Ha, a pile of trash leans against the façade of a house that is only half renovated. A building permit issued last July describes $95,000 of work, but no construction crews are working.

As it stands, the ISD's green tickets, issued for various violations including trash, lack of snow shoveling and zoning violations, are easy for absentee landlords to ignore. A bill has been filed in the state legislature to allow the city to attach green ticket fines to property tax bills, and make them easier to collect, but even that might not phase mega-property owners like banks.

"When the bill was originally filed we didn't have so many foreclosed properties. We did not envision this process to help with that problem," said the bill's main sponsor, state Rep. Marty Walz of the Eighth Suffolk District. "Whoever's paying the property taxes will see this money… that should help. But none of these fines are significant enough that they would be noticed by someone who owns 5,000 properties from overseas."

Gov. Deval Patrick objected to a small paragraph in the same bill filed last year, which defined certain snow shoveling neglect as gross negligence. He gave it a rare pocket veto; simply letting the time run out on the legislative session without acting on the bill. It is expected to pass this year without the offending paragraph.

It is also getting a little easier to locate owners, as another bit of new legislation now requires owners of foreclosed properties to register with the city when they foreclose. But all of it ultimately depends on neighborhood vigilance, as Girard's example shows.

Girard said he first called ISD over two months ago on 225 Westville St., but only got significant results after sending out a mass email to elected officials, other residents, and the Reporter.

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