The astounding fines that New Bedford landlords ignore

The astounding fines that New Bedford landlords ignore

I took a drive around the city last week to see how bad are the properties of some owners who have received the most code violations from New Bedford in the last five years.

New Bedford Light reporter Grace Ferguson had done a story in which she found that more than 500 properties had received at least 10 code violations during that time. Dozens of properties have racked up more than 50 violations.

The good news is two of the three properties werent as bad as they could have been. One of them, however, was every bit as bad.

The worst news is that so many landlords dont feel an obligation to regularly maintain rental units, even as the city is justifiably fining them.

My first stop was 901 Brock Ave., where a guy named Steve Economos and a partner (Derek Maranhas) are listed as the trustees of a boarded-up triple-decker.

The three-story building at 901 Brock Avenue has had 67 code violations over the last five years, including ones for overgrown weeds, piles of trash, and dirty, broken furniture in the driveway. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

The name Economos was familiar to me. At one time, a guy by the same name was said to be one of the most prolific of multi-family landlords in New Bedford.

In a 2013 Standard-Times story, there was a person whose name is Steve Economos who appeared on a city list of property owners who owed thousands in unpaid taxes. In Economos case, one of his debts was for $7,919 on a Bolton Street property, for example.

I dont know if this Steve Economos is the same guy who is a trustee for the troubled 901 Brock Ave. property, but I do know that at least this property was not as bad as I thought it could have been. Well, at least at the present moment.

Fergusons story described the 901 Brock Ave. triple-decker as having been vacant and boarded up since at least 2019. And in that time, it had racked up 67 code violations, including 19 tickets during the last year for unmaintained property. Inspection staff spotted overgrown weeds, piles of trash, and dirty, broken furniture in the driveway during recent visits.

Fergusons story (The city is cracking down on absentee landlords. Will it work?) was published on March 5.

By the time I got there on March 12, all the debris at 901 Brock Ave. had been cleaned up, but the house was still boarded up. Along its driveway, the vinyl siding contained as much dirt, mold, or whatever it was that was on it as any property Ive seen in New Bedford.

Chasing property owners is no easy task

Tracking down how and why the property got in so much trouble was not easy.

I contacted Mayor Jon Mitchells spokesman about the dwelling because I wanted to be sure that the three-story hadnt been sold since the city assessors website is not completely up to date. The online site is evidently only updated once a year (in January). Meanwhile, the latest transaction I could find on the Bristol County Souths Registry of Deeds site was for October 2022.

The date Oct. 4, 2022, is when Economos paid to release the city of New Bedfords lien on the building. The city had taken the property for nonpayment of $3,339 in taxes back in December of 2015.

Jon Darling, the mayors spokesman, was helpful enough to try to track down whether the property had been sold after the latest information on the government websites. He came back telling me that the citys Code Enforcement Division sends the bills for trash and other property violations at 901 Brock Ave. to an outfit named BMW Realty Trust of Fairhaven.

I couldnt find anything on the Registrys site linking BMW to 901 Brock Ave. its not an easy site to navigate if youre not a real estate professional. But BMW Realty Trust was, in fact, listed at one time or another as being a party involved in some 14 pages worth of property transactions (with 20 or so transactions per page) in the city of New Bedford.

Credit: Kellen Riell / The New Bedford Light, Datawrapper.
Source: City of New Bedford

Among the Registrys records, a guy with the same name, Steve Economos, was listed as being the person who paid to discharge the citys lien on 901 Brock Ave. in 2022.

This is how it goes when youre trying to chase the big landlords of multi-unit developments in the city. They dont always make it easy for you to know who they are, and the city and county government records are not easy to understand either. Its almost like its a system purposely made for the insiders.

I wish Mr. Economos and his partner had put as much effort into maintaining 901 Brock Ave. as perhaps they do in other matters.

The three-story building at this address has been a problem going on seven years. My former colleague Curt Brown reported in 2017 in The Standard-Times about an October fire at the building in which at least one dog had died and the tenants in six apartments had been displaced. The triple-decker building is one of the type designed for six separate apartments.

Down the street from Brock Avenue, at 88 Ruth St., city officials were happy to tell me that there is finally a plan to renovate another long burned-out structure across from Loretta Bourque Park.

Loretta Bourque was one of the great neighborhood activists of the city of New Bedford this last half century. They dont seem to come as hard-working and dedicated as Bourque anymore. Its safe to say that if she were alive today it would not have taken four years to come up with a plan to fix 88 Ruth St.

Im not sure what the story was with the Ruth Street building.

According to the Bristol South Registry, it has changed hands several times since just before it burned, and then afterwards too.

On May 27, 2020, a man named John Alfonso was grantor of the property to Ronald Oliveira, who has been one of the largest multifamily landlords in the city, with a $200,000 mortgage.

This property at 88 Ruth Street was the site of two-alarm fire in 2020. It has stood this way for four years through a multitude of property transactions. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

According to S-T archives, it then burned in a two-alarm fire on June 12, before the deed, on Sept. 9, 2020, was granted by Alfonso to Arie LLC, a Dartmouth company. The consideration listed on the registry site was $50,000. 

The latest transactions I found on 88 Ruth St. took place on Jan. 25, 2024, when a Yahweh Properties LLC  granted the building to Tailor Ridge Properties LLC with a mortgage of $485,000. There was also a separate deed on the same date in which Arie LLC granted it to Yahweh for $135,000.

Its all enough to make your head spin. But suffice it to say there looks like there was a lot of speculation going on.

Why do things take so long?

There can be a variety of reasons why it takes a while for the eyesore of a burned-property to be resolved. 

Mayor Mitchell confirmed to me for this column what I already knew: 

One reason that it can take a long time to renovate a burned out investment property in this city, or any Massachusetts city for that matter, is because of protracted negotiations between the owners and insurance companies. 

The preference in New Bedford is to rebuild a burned-out building if possible, or the property just becomes another one of the vacant lots common in an urban community like New Bedford where there have been fires. 

These properties are not infrequently places for trash and debris to accumulate. And then starts the cycle of code violation fines.

Its better than an empty-tooth lot, the mayor told me, referring to the commonplace name for such empty land where there has been a fire and the building torn down on a city street.

The state law for takings is also weak and expensive to litigate for the city. So by its own admission, New Bedford often cannot afford to chase many of those whose properties are accumulating multiple code violations, plenty of them unpaid.

In the meantime, the owners, particularly investment owners, often neglect the properties and, with 16% interest, they accumulate thousands of dollars never paid until the city government finally takes the property or it is unloaded to another buyer, including a speculator. The owners seem to know the city is unlikely to chase them.

The same thing can happen in the suburbs. In 2020, when I was at The Standard-Times, we had a story about a zombie house that had fallen into disrepair and overgrowth. Its safe to say, however, its far less common in the surrounding towns than the city. Poverty and exploitation of resources have been concentrated in the cities since the first construction of interstate highways.

Which brings me to another one of the New Bedford properties that Ferguson and The New Bedford Light spotlighted for its large number of code violations.

This location is a parking lot of sorts on Mitchell Street, directly in back of the Market Basket plaza. The address doesnt even have a street number as many such zoning plots dont. Its just called WS (for West Side) Mitchell Street, Parcel ID 93 146.

The aging fence and a discarded shopping cart from this Mitchell Street property near Market Basket in New Bedford. The property owners owe the city $43,050 on 155 tickets since 2019. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

This land, according to the Assessor’s Offices latest update in January, is owned by a Joseph and Lisa Brown. 

The New Bedford Light report describes the parking lot on Mitchell Street as owing the city an astounding $43,050. The property has received 155 tickets since 2019, including one for its 152nd offense of unmaintained property: Inspectors targeted the property last year, located directly adjacent to the supermarket building, for litter and weeds along its aging chain-link fence.

The records do not show any fines still outstanding for violations before 2019, according to The Lights story.

The Registry of Deeds and Assessors websites show that the Browns purchased the property for $3,689 dollars in 2008. But heres the astounding part: the taxes on the property jumped from $3,499.59 in Fiscal Year 2022 to $27,251.68 in Fiscal Year 2023. 

The mayors spokesman confirmed that the jump was not due to an increase in the property taxes but rather because the code violation fines and accrued interest has been added on to the property tax. This property is clearly under water, but unless the owners sell, who knows how much they could eventually owe the city.

When I arrived on Mitchell Street last week, this parking lot was not in bad shape at all. There was one abandoned shopping cart half on the adjacent street and half on the sidewalk. A motorist drove up and pushed it all the way onto the sidewalk.

Im not sure whether Mayor Mitchells proposal to steeply increase the rate at which code violation fines multiply will help solve the neglected maintenance problems on properties like the one on Mitchell Street. It obviously has not always been cleaned up, even owing $40,000-plus of fines and interest. 

The academic experts in our New Bedford Light story say that such fines tend not to work, but Massachusetts law reportedly does not allow some of the legal remedies they suggested. One expert backed the mayor up and called the more rapidly increasing fines a step in the right direction, but he also doubted the city could increase them fast enough to make a difference to folks who are already not paying.

Mitchell called the Mitchell Street numbers rare and pointed out that the state caps the fines at $300 or hed have proposed increasing them much more. He described the academics as out-of-staters who do not know what they are talking about.

This is not the only thing we do to enforce a code, he said, of the fines. Its not a cure-all, but its common sense to think it will help. Shortening the time it takes to get to the maximum $300 fine from 25 penalties to seven seems to me like it might help.

Were certainly willing to play every card we have, Mitchell said.

He contended that no mayor has done more to chase landlords for code violations than he has, and the city is cleaner than it has ever been. As evidence he said Operation Cleanup now removes only a half dumpster compared to the dumpster-and-a-half that it used to during its earlier pick-ups. By every account, the city looks better than it ever did, he told me during my interview.

Maybe. But Im not sure thats all his administration as much as changes in the city overall.

If the triple-decker on Brock Avenue and the parking lot at Mitchell Street showed good signs of cleanups for the time being, the property at Woodbridge Estates in the Far North End did not.

The densely developed complex of Woodbridge Estates in New Bedford. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Hard off Route 140, when you approach this condominium complex just off the northbound highway, you wonder how this development of 102 units at 1251 and 1261 Church St. ever got permitted by the city. To say that the units are crammed close together is an understatement.

In any event, they are nice enough looking units, but their dumpster situation behind the buildings in the farthest parking lot is certainly not nice enough.

When I was there on the 12th, there were three dumpsters, one of them was overflowing, another filled to the brim; and a damp mattress was lying on the parking lot beside them.

Our story recounted that the complex received 245 tickets in the last five years, including its 115th offense for an overflowing dumpster and its 52nd offense for unmaintained property. 

The overflowing trash bins and a discarded mattress at Woodbridge Estates on Church Street in the Far North End. The complex has $62,000 in outstanding code violations from the city. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Inspectors, according to The Lights story, spotted litter and discarded furniture around the dumpsters throughout the last year. The complexs violations have led to more than $62,000 in fines. That entire amount is still outstanding.

Well, notwithstanding such a huge amount of money outstanding, the present condition of the dumpsters indicates the development has no intention of changing its practices either by purchasing more dumpsters or monitoring the dumping of furniture and mattresses.

Darling said that the fines are sent to a post office box for the trustees of the condominiums. How they are spread out among the individual condominium owners or renters, I dont know.

Maybe the condo association just tacks it onto the yearly condo fees or rent increases. But do the residents even know how this is inflating their costs?

City Council considers mayors crackdown

The City Council has not said much about the mayors proposal to increase code violation fees. In fact, the last news they made about landlords was to defend the ones who dont answer the citys annual survey asking about their incomes and expenses. 

Id be interested to know how many of the councilors or their close families own investment properties themselves. 

The council through the years has always seemed sensitive to landlord fines; they often talk about protecting the small, mom and pop landlords. They have a good point, however, when they say that a not insignificant part of the problem is due to irresponsible tenants.

Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereira always acknowledges that his father and uncle are investment property owners. He is the chair of the Ordinance Committee that will consider the mayors fine proposal, and he said he hopes to get it on the agenda by May.

Pereira says his focus is that code enforcement officers may be issuing fines to folks for minor offenses.

The higher fines are a tool we can use, but if we are not going after the right properties, then the higher fines wont matter, he said.

Pereira gave the example of Mount Carmel Church in his ward receiving a fine for trash around its dumpster.

Are we prioritizing the right culprits? he asked. He has questions, he said, about how the violations are being meted out.

Personally, I think the mayor may be right that the city is somewhat cleaner than it was 12 years ago when he took office. New Bedford has been a city making progress in enforcing a better quality of life for a while now, through a series of mayors. 

But New Bedford also surely continues to have a problem with neglected properties, particularly with trash and debris in some places.

The mayors own proposal to ban nip bottles is one indication of this.

At the height of last summer, it took me less than an hour to find scores of nip bottles, beer and malt cans in the downtown and along Acushnet Avenue in the North End. Thats why Ive supported the mayors proposal to ban the sale of nips, which besides dispersing litter throughout New Bedford, play a role in enabling alcoholism and vagrancy in the center city.

The mayor, of course, is almost always dismissive of any kind of observation or criticism of his administration. And when I talked to him this week, he was critical of The New Bedford Lights work on this subject, questioning the accuracy of its story and my questions. Mitchell seems to somehow have a view that the role of the press is to play cheerleader for the city, including his administration. Any kind of critical eye at what hes doing is out of bounds. 

In my humble personal opinion, this approach does not serve Mayor Mitchell well in getting things done. 

Faced with the fact there were 500 properties that received more than 10 code violations in the last five years, the mayor argued that that is not much in a city where there are 30,000 renters.

Im not a statistician. I dont know if its too much or not. But I do know what I see with my own eyes, and we havent gotten a hold on these neglectful landlords yet.

The bottom line is that New Bedford continues to have a trash problem around untended properties. Maybe the mayors proposal will work and maybe it wont. It seems to me that its worth giving it a try. 

Email Jack Spillane at [email protected].