WARREN Combating vacancy problem

There are more than 100 condemned houses in the city.
WARREN -- Ron Rhine of Larchmont Avenue Northeast wants the owner of the vacant house next door to either sell the property or maintain it.
The house has been vacant about five years, ever since the owners moved out. Even when they were living there, Rhine, who's lived in his house about 11 years, says his neighbor mowed the lawn only a few times each year.
"The outside doesn't look too bad now that they've started to mow it," he said, referring to the city's mowing.
Rhine is happy with the rest of the neighborhood, but he worries that the vacant house is cheapening his property value.
"The guy on the other side had to lower his price to sell his house because it was next to a vacant house," he said.
The Larchmont Avenue house is just one example of deteriorating homes in the city -- a problem some council members think needs to be addressed immediately.
"If nothing happens here within a year or so, we'll have more condemned property," said Alford L. Novak, D-2nd.
The time to act is now, he said.
"A third of the housing stock in Warren is rental," Novak said. "Once you get to 50 percent, I don't think you're going to turn it around."
Major problem
The condition of homes throughout the city also has been an issue for Robert Marchese, D-at large.
He thinks the city, including its citizens, has to decide what they're going to tolerate.
"If the toilet on the front porch and the pickup truck parked in the front lawn are OK now, what are they going to look like 15 years from now?" Marchese said.
He contends it's the biggest problem facing the city.
"If this is not an issue for the community, then I'm all wrong -- I'm off base," Marchese said.
People get upset about city employee pay increases and even took a storm water utility fee increase to the ballot a few years ago.
"But they don't say boo about the guy with his car on blocks changing his brakes for a year and a half with no garage door," Marchese said. "Are we that bad that that's what's acceptable?"
Many property owners live outside the city. Targeting them and enforcing through the tenants may be the way to go. Combating the problem is going to take a concerted effort from residents, employees, the business community, council and the administration, the councilmen say.
Marchese commended the administration for recent efforts to address the problem.
Last month, Mayor Hank Angelo unveiled a plan to post houses that have been condemned, displaying the name and address of the property owner.
The administration also is looking at ways to strengthen ordinances and add fines to the city's arsenal of weapons to pursue property owners who allow their property to deteriorate.
There are more than 100 condemned houses, said Bob Pinti, deputy health commissioner.
"When I first came on council 11 years ago, there were maybe five or six," Novak said.
Condemnation means the house isn't fit for human habitation.
Some buildings have been hit by fire and never repaired. The owners of others, like on Kinsman Street, have just walked away. Still others have declared bankruptcy, and banks or mortgage companies are responsible for maintaining property.
Then there are those owned by landlords who simply fail to maintain them.
What happens
When a house is left vacant, an overgrown lawn is usually one of the first indicators -- often an invitation to vandals and thieves, who kick the doors in or break windows and rip out anything that may be of value like woodwork or plumbing.
Novak bought a mower designed to cut high grass, and he and his two sons have mowed lawns at some vacant houses.
People who leave a home may think since they no longer live there and are no longer making payments on it, it's no longer their responsibility, Pinti said.
That's not the case. Until a bank or mortgage company assumes ownership, responsibility for maintenance falls to the owner, even if he no longer lives in the house.
Locating an owner can be a lengthy process, compounding the problem. The city must send registered mail to the owner and wait for a reply.
If an owner can't be found, the city tries to maintain the property, but all the work falls to a four-person crew working citywide, limiting how much can be accomplished.
The city is hoping to change legislation to allow criminal charges, rather than just misdemeanor citations, to be leveled against property owners, Pinti said.
The administration also hopes to change legislation to enable the city to take action after reasonable attempts to locate a property owner have been made. That would shorten the time involved, he said.
Changes proposed
Another change the city hopes to enact is requiring owners to demolish structures the health board has ordered demolished.
The city now takes down such properties and attaches a tax lien to the property to pay for it.
If an owner doesn't comply, he or she could be charged criminally.
The administration is researching the changes it would like to make. A vote by council is needed.
The city boards the windows and doors of buildings, but that's often not much of a deterrent.
The houses can become hangouts for drug dealers or vagrants.
"It's blight and it's creeping," Novak said.
It's also a frustration for neighbors who try to maintain their homes, but must deal with falling property values because of what's next door or down the street.
Some park their vehicles in the driveways of vacant houses and mow the lawns to make them appear lived in.
Stephen Balko has lived in his Kinsman Street N.W. home for 30 years, but a house a few doors down has been vacant at least two years.
The city worked on the property a few days last week to cut the knee-high grass.
"I'd like to see someone either sell it or get it fixed up or something," Balko said.
The house is still inhabitable, but it's former owner just walked away, he said, leaving a mortgage company to maintain it.
"It's a very nice neighborhood," Balko said. "I like living here. It's quiet. It's just the one house."

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