NEW BEDFORD — On all sides of the city housing debate, there’s agreement: Well-maintained, occupied properties are an important part of the community and when “problem properties” emerge and persist, they affect entire neighborhoods.
With 2,289 people in New Bedford using federally funded rental subsidies — known informally as “Section 8” vouchers — to pay for housing, local landlords say that while it doesn’t account for problem properties, it can contribute to the overall problem of city housing.
“The property has to be up to code for Section 8, which is a good thing. All properties should be clean,” said Jose Castelo of ERA Castelo Real Estate. “The biggest problem is you spend thousands of dollars to clean up a place and then people move in. Three months later, they stop paying rent and you have to take them to Housing Court and then you have to clean up the property all over again. That’s something the politicians in this city don’t understand.”
The city has been trying to tackle its “problem properties” for years. Mayor Jon Mitchell created a Neighborhood Task Force to clean up garbage, graffiti and run-down properties and target landlords who have allowed their properties to deteriorate, violating housing code.
City officials, however, say they find that Section 8 homes are not typically part of the problem, with the New Bedford Housing Authority’s strict policies enforcing clean and safe homes for tenants who receive vouchers.
“Many of the problem properties in New Bedford aren’t qualified to accept Section 8 vouchers,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell.
Landlords say Section 8 housing has an unfair advantage, arguing it is more difficult to keep market-rate properties in good condition without the government dollars coming in to help pay for fixes.
“I don’t think anyone purposely lets their property go. If it happens, there’s a problem — maybe there are vacancies and they don’t have money to pay for the properties. If you have a lot of vacancies, there is not a lot of money coming in to pay properties. Sometimes, they don’t have enough money to keep up to code,” said Castelo, a landlord in New Bedford since 1975.
“To me, it’s not a burden with Section 8 because we keep properties up to code, but for some landlords it may be because they may not have enough money to keep it clean. It’s hard.”
While landlords say they are given much of the blame for the city’s problem properties, they argue that tenants are also part of the problem in cleaning up the neighborhoods.
It is the responsibility of the landlords to maintain properties, said Kevin Welch, who owns about 60 properties in the city. The problem is there is no accountability for tenants, Welch said.
“I’ve had problems with Section 8 tenants and with cash tenants. There’s no repercussions for tenants,” said Welch. “If you’re not going to punish the kid for putting his hand in the cookie jar, how do you stop him from putting his hand in the cookie jar?”
WHAT IS SECTION 8 HOUSING?
With checkpoints in place and inspections slated each year, Section 8 housing, or officially the “Housing Choice Voucher Program,” is a system that is intended to hold both tenants and landlords accountable and keep apartments and homes up to code, housing officials say.
A person pays 30 percent of their income toward rent, while the government picks up the rest of the bill. The rate varies from person to person depending on income. Whether a person chooses to find a place in Boston or New Bedford, they are still paying 30 percent of their income, housing officials said.
The program is confidential.
“The whole purpose of Section 8 is that individuals aren’t identified as low income. They have the freedom to live where they want and pay 30 percent of their income,” said New Bedford Housing Authority Executive Director Steven Beauregard.
When a tenant finds an apartment where a landlord signs off, an inspection process designed to keep properties safe is set in motion.
Before a tenant moves in, David Gerwatowski, director of leased housing at the Housing Authority, said an inspector visits the property, checking electrical outlets, water condition, carbon monoxide detectors and gutters. Inspectors use Housing Quality Standards set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Inspections are conducted twice a year by the Housing Authority — when a property is first leased and during the annual recertification.
“We feel it is a safer way to keep landlords on their toes and tenants on their toes,” said Gerwatowski. “If the landlord, or city or tenant calls for trash, we will do an interim inspection. If we do an interim or annual inspection, if we find a defect, if it is an emergency, the landlord has to fix it within 24 hours. If not an emergency, we give the landlord 30 days to fix the landlord. If the landlord doesn’t fix it, we stop paying the landlord.”
Also, tenants risk losing their vouchers if they do not hold up their end of the deal.
“In order for the program to work, we have to be fair to landlords. If a tenant violates the lease, they lose their Section 8,” Gerwatowski said.
Tenants also receive a 90-minute briefing with the Housing Authority before they can get Section 8 housing through the city, Beauregard said.
“A lot of them understand what needs to be done before they can come in,” said Beauregard “We’re a big part of keeping apartments in the good conditions they’re in.”
“I think we have a major good impact on what’s going on in the city,” added Beauregard.
While the Housing Authority has had to cut off business with some landlords it declined to name, it also has had to terminate tenants — mostly for not reporting income.
“We have ones that you never hear of and ones that you do. It’s no different than market rate,” said Gerwatowski. “There’s a stigma about it, which is part of the reason why we enforce the rules.”
The “problem properties” are not the Housing Authority’s domain, Beauregard said.
“We can’t be responsible for properties that don’t have our tenants,” Beauregard said. “The ones for the most part who have our tenants — when their properties need to be fixed, they are fixed. If a house is trashed across the street, owned by the same landlord, we can’t do anything about it.”
THE CITY’S APPROACH
While the New Bedford Housing Authority takes the lead on Section 8 Housing, the city focuses largely on market-rate homes.
In 2012, Mayor Jon Mitchell launched the Neighborhood Task Force, headed up by City Attorney John Flor, to tackle trash and nuisances in the city and hold landlords and tenants accountable. The task force sweeps the city neighborhoods, combing the streets for trash and housing and fire code violations. The task force doesn’t know whether a house is market rate or Section 8 and who owns it when it writes it up for a violation, Flor said.
It receives about 20 to 30 private complaints each week about nuisance properties, Flor said.
“One of the goals is to hold absentee landlords’ feet to the fire and generally we’re trying to make neighborhoods livable,” Flor said.
The task force has several tools it uses to clean up properties.
Fourteen days before a rental agreement is signed, landlords can request a pre-rental voucher inspection for $100 to allow the Health Department to inspect the home before a tenant moves in. Conditions of the rental unit are documented at the start of the tenancy, city housing officials said. The tool can be used against illegal rent withholding and tenant damage to the unit.
If a building is vacant for at least 45 days, it is required that the building be registered with the city. It will be secured to prevent people from entering to use drugs, steal copper etc.
Each year a building remains vacant, a fee accrues. The first year it costs $500. By year four, the property owner can owe $3,000. The money supports fire and police services, Flor said.
In Fiscal Year 2010, the city netted $75,500 from the program. By Fiscal Year 2015, it acquired $246,000.
The program was born out of the 2008 foreclosure crisis, said Patrick Sullivan, director of the Planning, Housing and Community Development. In 2008, there were 326 foreclosures in the city. In 2014, it dropped to 77.
City officials can petition Housing Court to name a receiver to vacant properties if all attempts are made to get the landlord to comply, Flor said.
A receiver can put a lien on the property. The city can then fix up the property and turn it into a first-time homeowner house.
It is intended to get landlords to renovate properties, Flor said.
To date, about 10 to 12 properties under threat of receivership were fixed up.