Bill Aims to Convert ‘Zombie Properties’ Into ‘Good Housing’

File photograph. (Image licensed by Ingram Image.)

Every city in Massachusetts has one or two, and in Lawrence, there are hundreds, Mayor Daniel Rivera said Thursday: Vacant properties that aren’t being developed, because their owners are tied up in land court or the ownership is otherwise unclear.

“They’re either zombie properties or in bureaucratic no-man’s land, where people really can’t access them,” Rivera said, adding that those properties are a threat to vagrants and become a threat for arson, for example.

Rivera appeared before the Community Development and Small Business Committee, pitching lawmakers on a bill that aims to make it easier for blighted and abandoned properties to return to the housing market and boost struggling neighborhoods in the process.

According to the State House News Service, the Lawrence mayor said walking by the same vacant building for years can result in “a sense of hopelessness in despair” for neighbors and send a message “that no one cares.” Revitalizing those vacant properties into new housing, he said, could strengthen communities.

Filed by Rep. Antonio Cabral, the bill would form a commission to study strategies for improving the quality of housing stock in weak markets, task the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development with developing a “capacity building program” to help cities and towns with neighborhood stabilization and housing improvement efforts, and create a “spot blight rehabilitation program” focused on abandoned and vacant residential properties.

Lawmakers on the Community Development Committee questioned supporters about the bill’s eminent domain question, and the possible unintended consequence of gentrification.

Sen. Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said she was “concerned about the property tax rate of the neighbors and the impact of potential gentrification of that neighborhood” if a formerly abandoned property is improved as envisioned by the bill.

Rep. Lenny Mirra said he agreed with the goal of the bill and would “like nothing better than to see those properties turned into good housing.” The West Newbury Republican said, though, that he believed eminent domain “seems kind of a rash and kind of an extreme way of attaining these goals.”

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