EDITOR’S NOTE--Recently we published an article titled “Blight is Spreading in Gloucester City”. As a follow up to that article we wanted to know what steps the city of Gloucester has taken to fight that problem. As we dug deeper, we learned more and more about the monstrous task that the city’s Housing Office is faced with each day.
By Bill Cleary
GLOUCESTER CITY NJ--(cnbnews.net)Housing Officer Joseph Stecklair, said Gloucester City has an approximate 300 abandoned properties that have fallen in disrepair. According to Stecklair, his office sent out 200 letters in May to violators of Chapter 25, the Brush, Weeds and Debris law.
Some of the violations a property owner can be cited for:
-- overgrown vegetation, grass/weeds exceeding 10 inches
-- trash, fifth, obnoxious growths, garbage, junk
--dog feces not cleaned daily
-- swimming pools with stagnant water
--swimming pools, two feet and deeper, that do not have a grounded electric outlet for the pool filter
The property owner is given three days to correct the violations. If not corrected a citation is issued in the amount of $32.
Furthermore the “violation notice” warns in part, “Upon the issuance of this citation if this violation is not abated within five days it will be considered a major violation and court action will be taken. The city will remove the violation and a lien will be placed on the property. Violators can be fined up to $1,000 and or imprisonment up to 90 days.”
To remedy the problem the Housing Office initiates a work order, and the Public Works Department corrects the violation at the particular property. Some of the work is performed by the young men from the Summer Help Program for Kids. The cost for this service is $200-per- hour worked. A lien can be placed on the property to collect the fine if the property owner doesn’t pay it.
CNBNews filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) with the City Clerk on July 1 asking for a list of properties that have been cited for violation of Chapter 25, along with the amount of fines for the following years:
(Mar. To Nov. 2009) 50 property owners, total fines and liens $24,382
(Jan. To Nov. 2010) 102 property owners, total fines and liens $35,870
(Jan. To Dec. 2011) 122 property owners, total fines and liens $84,291
(Feb. To Nov. 2012) 133 property owners, total fines and liens $80,354
(Jan. To June 2013) 60 Property owners, total fines and liens $22,758
“The number of abandon properties keeps rising. People are leaving their homes sometimes in the middle of the night. They can’t pay the mortgage payment, so they just leave,” said Stecklair.
“According to the politicians in Washington DC the housing problem is improving,” Stecklair said. “I don’t see that happening in Gloucester City yet, but I remain optimistic.”
He said PSG&E notifies his office each month about the number of properties that will have their service cut off for not paying the gas and electric bill.
“The most recent notice from the company listed 102 properties,” he said. “As a result, some people who have had their electric turned off are stealing an electric meter from a nearby neighbor’s house.”
He also mentioned that his office has noticed a large infestation of bed bugs and roaches in some neighborhoods. To help cut down on this problem the city now requires the public to place any discarded furniture in a bag before placing it on the curb for trash pickup.
“The city provides the bag. They have to contact the Public Works Department (456-0781) to obtain one,” he said.
On February 28, 2013, Gloucester City Council passed a new vacant property ordinance aimed at owners of abandoned properties. Effective July 1, 2013, the new law requires the owner of an abandoned property to pay a registration fee of $500. The owner is required to renew the registration annually as long as the building remains vacant. The fine for failure to register the property ranges between $500 and $1,000.
Nearby Westville passed a similar ordinance that takes effect August 1. Under the new law, the first registration fee costs $500, with that amount tripling, to $1,500, for the first renewal. The second annual registration renewal will cost vacant and abandoned property owners $3,000, and every subsequent renewal after that will cost $5,000. The proceeds from the fines will be added to the borough’s general fund. There are approximately 30 foreclosed or abandoned properties in Westville.
NOTE--In the next article we will relate a story from a property owner who claims employees from the housing office have been harassing him for 15 years for not maintaining his property. We will also include a response to that accusation (s) from Housing Officer Joe Stecklair. The article will be posted Tuesday, at noon.