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Zombie house law gets owners' attention

Medford's crackdown on so-called zombie houses appears to be getting the attention of previously unresponsive property owners.

Of the five derelict properties the city threatened with receivership in March, four have submitted plans to either demolish or repair houses and the fifth is in foreclosure.

"I'm shocked we had such a great response," said Sam Barnum, Medford building director.

In March, the City Council agreed to send letters to the five property owners and give them 60 days to develop a plan to deal with houses that have been plagued with vandalism, drugs and vagrancy over several years. If the city didn't receive a response, it would start receivership action in court to gain control over the property.

The city determined that two of the houses at 2690 Connell Ave. and 205 Chestnut Ave. should be demolished.

Three other houses, at 1530 W. Main St., 540 Midway Road and 911 Queen Anne Ave., could be remodeled, according to the city.

The five properties were chosen because they represented the "worst of the worst" in the city, according to Barnum. The house on Chestnut will be sold through foreclosure.

According to police last March, the Midway Road house was the scene of 192 calls for service since January 2012, and the Queen Anne house has prompted 162 calls for service during the same period.

On Thursday, Barnum told the council that the owners of five additional properties were going to be notified they could be subject to the same takeover. The city received responses from two of the owners who plan to address the problems, but the three remaining properties that will receive 60-day notices are at 1001 North Central Ave., 1932 Hybiscus St. and 1857 Easy St.

Barnum said the city is looking for a plan of action from all the property owners to either remodel or demolish the buildings.

One of the properties on the list at Central has been vacant for more than a decade.

"I live a block from that property, and I see it every day," said Councilor Kay Brooks.

The Central property has code violations for rodent infestation, visible holes in the foundation and holes or rot in the siding. Medford police have responded to calls for transients living in the structure and for an abandoned recreational vehicle.

The Hybiscus house has similar issues, and code enforcement has dealt with transient activity, a structure fire, graffiti and an attempted break in.

The house on Easy Street, damaged by a fire and deemed structurally unsafe, has resulted in nuisance calls, suspicion of drug activity and numerous arrests.

City officials have tried, sometimes for years, to get owners of abandoned properties to rehabilitate them. Armed with a little-known, 1989 state law, the city recently adopted ordinances that give it the ability to foreclose on properties that have become a threat to the health and safety of a community.

Under the state law, the city or another agency can initiate a receivership action against a problem property. Once the city gains control, it can begin to rehabilitate it, potentially qualifying for grants and other federal programs.

City officials hope the threat of foreclosure will be the spur that compels banks to rehabilitate the properties themselves.

In addition, under a new city code adopted by the council last November, owners of vacant houses must repair boarded-up windows and doors within six months.

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.