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Boston is hammering out solutions for restoring city's abandoned housing

In a city where 6,000 people are on the waiting list for public housing, and many others are struggling to find decent, affordable housing, the fact that Boston has thousands of abandoned buildings is disgraceful.

Since 1970, the city has lost 11,000 units of housing to abandonment. The problem is spreading in Boston, as well as in other cities in Massachusetts and across the country.

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Buildings are abandoned for a number of reasons: high property taxes, repair bills that add up to more than the building is worth, problems attracting tenants, or a declining neighborhood. In the end, the owner just walks away from the building.

Then a cycle of decay often sets in, including property tax delinquency, foreclosure by the city, vandalism, and eventually demolition.

Several impediments - both bureaucratic and financial - exist to halting the cycle of decay. Yet forward strides are being made to reverse this trend.

Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn has promised to make housing a top priority of his administration. Long a housing champion, Mayor Flynn visited two housing projects on his inauguration day as a show of support for public housing.

Peter Drier, co-chairman of Flynn's task force on housing, says the administration will take steps to ''prevent the tragedy (of abandonment) in the first place'' by giving people incentives to keep and maintain their houses.

The mandate of the Flynn administration, says Mr. Drier, will be to see that all neighborhoods will be stable and active. By effectively delivering services, the city should give people confidence in their neighborhoods, he adds.

Linking downtown development funds with neighborhood revitalization projects, offering programs to help the elderly maintain their homes, and home improvement loans are all suggested ways to confront the problem of decay, he says.

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The city is making several other efforts to address the abandoned housing issue. The Neighborhood Development and Employment Agency (NDEA) is working to help cut the red tape for people who want to buy and renovate abandoned houses.

Paul Grogan, NDEA director, says there are about 12 city departments that play some part in the process. In the past, he says, someone interested in renovating a house could spend a week or more going from department to department trying to determine what steps must be taken to purchase and begin work on the house.

But during the past nine months, the 12 departments started sharing information on the status of each abandoned building in the city. Through some very fancy computer programming, it is now possible for a citizen to go to just one department, say, the tax assessor, to learn whether the city has actually foreclosed on a property, how much money is owed in back taxes, how long the building has been vacant, and other information.

With federal funds, the NDEA is sponsoring several programs to spur renovation. A homesteading program will enable people with low and moderate incomes to buy a house. The new owner will contribute his own ''sweat equity'' - usually painting or wallpapering, Mr. Grogansays.

The NDEA is also contributing to the Boston Housing Partnership, a public-private effort to renovate 800 units of housing in the city within the next 18 months.

The partnership will work with several neighborhood-based, nonprofit organizations to restore the buildings. The project's $30 million price tag will be picked up by the NDEA, foundation grants, and donations from the business community. The neighborhood groups will eventually own and operate the buildings.

The greatest impediment to purchasing and renovating an abandoned house is the back taxes owed on the building, says Leonard Raymond of Northeastern University's Institute of Applied Politics. In Boston, he says, such taxes average more than $11,500 per building. Banks and lending institutions are seldom willing to lend a prospective buyer that much extra money simply to pay delinquent taxes, he says.

Currently, the process of securing a tax abatement from the state's Department of Revenue is slow and cumbersome, he says, dragging on for months and sometimes even years. When a prospective buyer is trying to secure financing , a long wait is disastrous.

Legislation was introduced last week in the Massachusetts legislature to streamline the abatement process, and to give cities and towns more say in how much money is abated. If the new legislation passes, it will limit the process to one month.

Plenty of people are interested in fixing up and living in old houses, says Northeastern's Mr. Raymond. The buildings are a tremendous resource to the city , he says.

No property taxes are collected on abandoned buildings. And such dilapidated structures usually lower the valuation of neighboring properties, decreasing the city's tax revenue throughout the neighborhood. If Boston's vacant buildings were restored and returned to the tax roles, the city could collect millions of tax dollars annually, according to Mr. Raymond.

Other costs - both monetary and social - are associated with the cycle of decay. Arson, with its high costs to insurance companies and the fire department , is a common problem. Policing the properties and boarding up abandoned buildings are also costly. For instance, the city paid more than $3 million last year for fire protection, boarding, and demolishing decayed buildings.

The bulldozer is the extreme solution. Instead, new city and state initiatives - with the leadership and commitment of the Flynn administration, the business community, and neighborhood groups - will do much to restore the city and its abandoned buildings.

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