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Between the Lines: Bleak Stagnation

Is urban blight in Springfield really intractable?

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Last Sunday morning, I took a walk around a neighborhood the Valley Advocate has written about a lot in recent years: the part of Forest Park that lies to the northeast of what is known locally as “the X”—the intersection of Dickinson Street with Belmont and Sumner avenues.

While the lushness of the season on such a bluebird day made things look softer, warmer than it had in the late fall of 2008, when I toured the area with a photographer for a story on the region’s foreclosure crisis, or in the fall of 2009, when we returned for basically the same reason, it didn’t take long to see glaring signs of urban blight.

On Leyfred Terrace, where we’d found a dozen or more homes vacant and boarded up in 2008 and 2009, I saw little visible sign that circumstances had changed much in the last five years. There may be slightly fewer boarded-up houses, but many homes appeared unoccupied, or at least uncared for. Turning on to Dickinson Street at one end of Leyfred Terrace, I saw more of the same, with only a few people working or playing outside on what was shaping up to be a very nice day.

On Dickinson Street, I came upon a man working in his front yard. His place stood out because it was so attractive, so well kept. Sadly, I can’t say the same about his neighbor’s place: the yard, strewn with debris, was enclosed by cheap metal fencing in bad repair; several of the windows were boarded up and the lower half of the side facing the street was wrapped partially in Tyvek, the modern alternative to tarpaper that builders use to provide a water barrier between the outer cladding of a structure and the frame. Some of the Tyvek, looking old and torn away in places, flapped against the house, while another big piece had apparently come loose and gotten stuck in the fence between the two properties.

I asked the man what was going on with his neighbor’s place; he looked up from his garden with a sad smile and shrugged. He told me that the place had been vacant for most of the last five years. A few years ago, he told me, a crew had come out to do some work and he thought it might have finally sold. That’s when the side was partially covered with Tyvek. The work crew went away and haven’t come back.

I didn’t have to ask, but I did anyway: was he angry at having to look at such an eyesore, sad to see the value of his home hurt by his neighbor’s neglect?

“Of course,” he said, gesturing abruptly at the house next door. “But I don’t have a neighbor. I have that!”

Later in the week, I called longtime Forest Park activist Sheila McElwaine, who’s spent the last three decades fighting urban blight. I asked her if I was wrong in my impression that, while other parts of Massachusetts and even Hampden County have seen some improvement, Springfield is still dealing with a foreclosure crisis.

“”Things got a little better for a while,” she said. “But just in the last year or two, something’s happened.” Walking or driving around the neighborhood, McElwaine said, she sees recently occupied homes suddenly abandoned and boarded up: “We ask each other, ‘Why is this one boarded up? Why is that one boarded up?’” She told me one of the many things she’s learned about blighted neighborhoods over the years: “The closer you look, the more problems you see.”

McElwaine hesitated to assign blame for the problem—at least to any one person or group. She said the code enforcement system in Springfield, while certainly overtaxed, basically works. Code enforcement officials respond to specific complaints, which can be made anonymously. “You can call and leave a message in the middle of the night, while you’re safe at home in your slippers,” she said. If more people would call in complaints, more problems would be addressed. If owners of distressed and abandoned property, whether banks or investors or absentee landlords, don’t address the code violations, McElwaine said, “the city can and should drag them to housing court.” In that regard, she said, the city “does an OK job.”

But are the top officials doing enough? Are the state and local politicians who campaigned on promises to turn the problems around making the foreclosure crisis a priority? And if they aren’t, what are the long-term consequences?

I’ve been doing stories about absentee landlords, investors and lenders and the damage they do to communities since I started working as a reporter in the 1980s. Invariably, the stories had two basic parts: a description of the problem, with an effort to quantify the increase in abandoned and neglected property and its impact on surrounding property values; and a discussion of what, if anything, the state and local government was doing about it. In almost every case, the properties in question were owned by landlords, investors or banks that were not only absent from the property, but absent from any direct communication or involvement with the community or municipal government. At best, the owners were reluctant landlords who’d bought the properties not for their potential rental income, but as speculative investments that they hoped to flip for an easy profit if and when the market drove prices up.

Through boom and bust everywhere else, the history of some cities over the last 30 years is marked by bleak stagnation.

And fat chance of seeing much of a rise any time soon in the market prices of the homes I saw Sunday, even those in the best of shape. According to the Multiple Listing Service Property Information Network, which tracks real estate as it moves on and off the market, there are more than 430 single-family homes currently for sale in Springfield. While that number has dropped from more than 500 homes two years ago, at what many real estate experts view as the height of the crisis, the high inventory in Springfield coupled with soft demand will likely hold values down, perhaps even depress them further.

When I ran my own quick analysis by a Springfield real estate agent who recently sold a house in Forest Park, she offered me another troubling statistic: “Only 25 single-family homes have sold on Belmont Avenue or Dickinson Street in the last 10 years.” Most of those have been in great shape, she said, but still sold for less, sometimes far less, than their assessed value.

For McElwaine, the worries of real estate agents about sale prices are largely a distraction from the work it will take to turn the neighborhood around. She told me she’s found it best not to look for a magic solution, not to personalize the issue by attacking politicians or government officials. “I have my opinions [about individual politicians],” she said, “but there is no bad person responsible.” The problem could not be solved by relieving anyone of office, she said; it has to be approached on a case-by-case basis.

I couldn’t help it. I pushed McElwaine to give me some sense of what City Hall could do to lift real estate values in Forest Park, increasing the possibility that the majority of homes might again become occupied by owners with a true stake in the neighborhood. She laughed.

“If the city ever got serious about making this place really bikeable and walkable, I think it would turn things around very quickly,” she said. “And then we’d be talking about the problem of gentrification.•

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