Eight years since the height of the national foreclosure crisis, Providence faces a plague of vacant houses, blighting neighborhoods. Now the capital city’s new mayor is ramping up efforts to combat the issue. One home on the city's West Side is a success story; it's part of the ambitious plan to create many more in the state capital.
On a cold, sunny morning in March a massive front end loader tears into a tan, two-story home, on Marshall St. on the West Side of Providence. A group of neighbors and passersby watch from across the street.
“It’s just been so long waiting for this to happen. I’m giddy,” said Catherine Mardosa.
Mardosa and her partner, Matt Tracy, live next door in a three story purple Victorian. She’s giddy, because they’ve been working towards this day for nearly eight years.
That’s how long this house has been abandoned. And it looks it. Pieces of the roof have blown off leaving gaping holes. Windows are missing; glass litters the driveway. Mardosa said the house contributed to all kinds of problems; from vandalism, to stolen mail.
“Folks that were stealing mail were bringing all the mail into this house. Folks were doing drugs upstairs. We had our wheels taken off our car, but only on the passenger’s side, because on this side no one was able to see them and then they were able to jump through the window and get away,” said Mardosa.
The West Side is working hard to keep that kind of crime at bay, and build a new sense of community. It’s an area where young professionals and gentrifiers live alongside blue-collar families and rundown apartment buildings.
The story of this home is familiar. The owner purchased the house in the mid 2000’s, in the midst of the housing bubble. When the bubble burst he got stuck with a mortgage he couldn’t afford, and the bank foreclosed. The house remained empty as it changed hands, being sold back and forth by companies buying up toxic assets.
At one point, Mardosa said, a developer bought the house. But he simply stripped its plumbing, walls and floorboards, and left it to rot. Days before the demolition, the couple toured the building. Tracy pointed out that the house was one the verge of collapse.
“There’s a good chance that the house, without these cables would collapse in some direction or another,” said Tracy. “Since it’s right next to our house and our neighbors, we’d be dealing with kind of a disaster if that happened.”
Tracy and Mardosa, along with another neighbor, decided they couldn’t wait for disaster to happen. So they tried to contact the home’s owner. That proved to be a herculean effort. After all the sales, just nailing someone down was impossible said Tracy.
“Every time we would call and be like ‘who owns this house?’ we’d get these weird answers, like ‘we don’t know’. Is it a bank? No, it’s this guy. Well where’s the guy? Well we don’t know. Is it a tax sale property? Yes but they don’t actually own it.”
Tracy touches on the heart of the problem when it comes to foreclosures: finding an owner. Often they’re banks, or companies buying large swaths of properties, waiting to unload them for a profit. These groups can be tough to pin down to fix a zombie property.
The neighbors on Marshall St. pooled their funds, and decided to buy the house themselves. They hired a lawyer, and they had to buy tax liens held against the property. In 2013, the city stepped in to help.
Sean Creegan is the city solicitor who worked with the trio as they tried to secure the property. Creegan was part of a task force devoted to tackling nuisance properties, started by former mayor Angel Taveras. The group finally secured the deed in 2014. Now they were saddled with a derelict building.
“We determined that their desire, if they could wave a magic wand, they just wanted to get rid of the property,” said Creegan. “They could increase their parking a little bit, and they could just use the rest of it as greenspace.”
The problem was how to pay for the demolition, which can set you back thousands of dollars. So Creegan and his team came up with a novel idea: a small loan from the Providence Redevelopment Agency. The PRA is the city agency that helps fight neighborhood blight.
“The PRA has given loans out for many different things, but this was not one of the things they had ever loaned money for, so we had to design a program from the ground up,” said Creegan.
What makes this program innovative is that the PRA typically works with larger companies and developers. This is the first time they’ve offered this type of tool to individuals. It’s a loan, so it is a risk, but one that Creegan hopes pays off, and can serve as a model for demolishing or restoring other derelict buildings across the city.
Months later, as the house on Marshall St. is torn down, the endless hoops are in the not so distant past. This is a success story. But in the same West Side neighborhood dozens of other buildings sit empty. Even more spread out across the city; dotting some of Providence’s poorest neighborhoods. Current Mayor Jorge Elorza calls it a longstanding problem.
“There are about 600 abandoned and vacant properties throughout the city, and what’s so troubling about it is that they’ve been like that for 5,6,7 years,” said Elorza.
Before winning election in November, Elorza sat as a judge on the city’s housing court, and he made the city’s housing crisis a major platform of his campaign. Now that’s he’s got the job, he wants to make good on his promise.
“I want Providence to be the first city of its size in the entire country that has not a single abandoned and boarded up property within our borders,” said Elorza.
That’s an ambitious goal said Ray Neirinckx from the Rhode Island Housing Commission, the agency that oversees housing issues statewide. As he points out, many boarded up properties have no clear owners, just like the Marshall St. house.
“To me the greatest barrier is securing the chain of ownership, so appropriate action can be taken, so that they can be returned to productive use,” said Neirickx.
Neirinckx said, most likely, each and every one of those 600 abandoned properties is entangled in a complex web of ownership, each requiring different approaches and teams of lawyers.
But he believes Elorza’s plan is feasible. He said it will probably take years, and the combined resources of the city, non-profit housing groups, and private partners.
The house at the end of Marshall St. is about to find new life as a garden; by the mayor’s count, that’s one house down, some 599 to go.
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