NEW LONDON — Seated around a conference table at Quinn & Hary Marketing at 48 State Street were Felix Reyes, director of planning and economic development for New London, Tom Bombria, community development and economic development coordinator, and Omi Morales, the city’s new blight enforcement officer.
Three local officials — representing voices of administration, funding and boots-on-the-ground — gathered Friday afternoon to talk with CT Examiner about blight issues and promoting property stewardship among the city’s business and homeowners.
It begins with roof repair
The conversation began with the city’s recently established $120,000 Roof Repair Revolving Loan Program that provides interest-free loans for roof repairs and building damage caused by water infiltration. Designed to support the renovation and rehabilitation of historic commercial and/or mixed-use properties, the program provides applicants with loans of up to $10,000 at 0% interest. To qualify, the historic properties must be at least 50 years old and have historic, cultural or architectural significance.
“The city had a loan fund for a long time, and I said, how long has this been used, and Tom said, the last time was seven years ago… so there’s money there,” explained Reyes. “The money is there but it’s how we market and package it to incentivize folks.”
Asking for ideas on the best use for the money, especially for historic buildings, Reyes went to the New London City Center District, known as CCD, a group comprising about 150 building owners in the downtown district.
“How do we get some of the money flowing? And one of the ideas was roofing. And I thought that was a great idea, because as you know with historic buildings, even a small flashing repair or chimney would equate to saving hundreds of thousands of dollars of water damage,” he said.
With that idea in mind, Reyes went to Bombria, who has worked for New London for 21 years and manages programs, grants and funds related to community-based organizations and housing programs.
“I said let’s repackage part of this revolving loan to start targeting some of the needs that these building owners have,” said Reyes. “As much as I’m doing to tighten up our blight ordinances, I’m also trying to create incentives to help folks make repairs and it’s a give and take and you have to keep that balance.”
Bombria said the city already had a revolving loan program for larger projects in the $50,000 to $75,000 range, at about 3% or 3.5% interest, but the funding wasn’t getting much traffic.
“Nobody was interested so we broke it down and made it simpler and made it zero interest, and since Felix announced it, now we have five applications that have been reviewed, three that have been approved and five inquiries,” Bombria said. “We wanted to support these people and we hadn’t spent any funding in years and so this was a great initiative and a great idea, attractive to people who needed some cash flow.
Bombria said at this point most of the $120,000 has been spoken for, but it’s a revolving loan and the money will come back in a couple of years for the next round of applications.
Felix said, “If this is successful there will be grounds to ask for more money.”
The loans emphasize the importance of sealing the building envelope to prevent water damage.
“In any construction or remodel, the first thing you do is make sure the envelope of your building is weather-tight,” said Reyes. “There’s no reason for anyone to invest any money in a building if the roof’s leaking because the amount of damage that water can do when it comes to decay and mold and rot, health issues, the structure — all of those come in to play and it may only take a small repair.”
Reyes said a small ceiling leak can become a $10,000 repair or much more. Investing $10,000 in repairs or preventive maintenance will “turn into tens of thousands in unforeseen issues that you won’t have to deal with in the future.”
Streamlining the process leads to bigger projects
Bombria said the fund was originally slated solely for downtown buildings but that was recently changed to include the entire city, which resulted in a substantial increase in applications for larger loans.
“Because we streamlined the application process, we have three approved and one pending for $20k to $40k at interest, which will help sustain the program,” he said. “And then there are four other applications that we’re looking at. These bigger ones are 7-year loans.”
The funds for the revolving loan program originated from a settlement won by the Downtown New London Association from the developers of the Crystal Mall.
Bombria said the source of the funding is significant.“It’s not taxpayer money, it originated from that lawsuit.”
Morales started as the city’s blight enforcement officer on June 24. His job is to support and enforce the city’s property maintenance code and ordinances and to monitor a variety of nuisance housing, concerns of health and safety, blight, graffiti among other issues. He previously worked as a land use and assistant zoning enforcement officer in the Town of Windham, where the preservation of the Hotel Hooker is an ongoing issue.
Windham and New London, which have both been identified as distressed municipalities by the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, share similar issues, said Morales.
“I deal with the same type of individuals — homeowners, property owners, business owners. Some of them maintain and keep their properties well. Some of them neglect their properties. Overall here I face the same challenges except this is a bigger city, it’s more dense,” he said.
When he talks with residents about blight problems that need to be resolved, Morales said he uses a compassionate approach.
“I believe 80 percent of the issues that you’re facing with the homeowner or business owner, is in your approach. It’s how you approach the individual and how you inform them,” he said. “If you know how to approach and get their attention and offer a solution and not put demands on them, they are more likely to help you out and comply and say, ‘I’ll take care of it, I’ll bring it up to code, I’ll what do I have to do.’”
Many times residents are not informed about the city’s ordinances concerning garbage or disposal of furniture, which are left on sidewalks.
“If we as a community go out and provide them with proper instruction and information, then the community will help out. It’s not only me as a blight officer. It’s a challenge for the community, not just one person,” he said.
Morales said that before approaching a homeowner or business owner, he researches the property and the people and visits the site to see how it’s maintained. From there, he takes a collaborative approach to the problem.
“I will reach out and say, ‘I noticed that’ or ‘can you please,’ or “I don’t know if you’re aware,’ but it’s not permitted by a certain ordinance, would you mind addressing this issue so it will prevent you from being cited and then I didn’t have to take certain action,” he said. “Providing them the guidance that they need is more effective than my going to their house and citing them — they will be more likely to collaborate with me.”
He said he works to provide tools, resources and information so that property owners can bring their buildings into compliance, partly for the taxpayers and those who do maintain their properties.
“We have people who pay taxes, and they see properties that are neglected, so we need to act on behalf of those people who pay taxes and we need to be fair,” he said.
Reyes said that eliminating blight involved four steps, and with a transient city population and 60 percent renters, the message of maintenance and preservation needed to be repeated constantly.
“Step one is acknowledging and communicating that there’s a blight issue. Step two is education. Step three is action. And, if there’s no action… then enforcement,” he said. “We need to not only educate these owners, but remind them there’s a level of stewardship in owning property in New London.”
After exhausting these steps — including a $100 per day fine — the city sometimes is forced to step in and do the work for a property owner — but not for free.
“They call it ‘clean and lien’ — the city cleans the property and puts a lien on the property for the services rendered and then we get their attention that way,” said Reyes. “You have to have those in place, for those that like to push the boundaries.”
Bombaria said the practice has produced some results, though not always quickly.
“Our law department has been very successful in recovering (the lien) eventually, sometimes the owner will just come clean and pay up, but if they ever try to sell the property it’s going to pop up at a closing that we paid — it happens all the time,” he said.
If safety is a factor and the property owner cannot be reached, the city will take action, Reyes said.
“That’s usually done for emergencies, like a dead tree on a sidewalk or a lot that’s really overgrown, that’s really blighted,” he said. “Everything else has a process, you get fined, you go to the Office of Appeal. But there are instances where the city has to step in and take care of the problem so that we can prevent any harm or safety issues to our residents.”
The long view
“A 20-year problem is not going away in 20 days, hands down. You’re talking about people’s personal property and how I address those long-term problems. I’m more about building relationships,” said Reyes. “Even just on Bank St. alone where we had a lot of criticism, there are things happening every single day about improving and that only happens through building relationships and a level of trust, keeping people accountable, not through threatening, through enforcement.”
Educating and informing residents about compliance needs to be an ongoing process, said Morales.
“We have our own information that we should provide to the residents– it has to be a constant reminder because as humans we forget things,” he said.
Reyes said it was important that his department and employees remain accountable to the public, including the problem of blighted city buildings.
“I always like to make sure we have accountability. We work but we’re not perfect. City properties have blight issues,” he said. “We have to be just as accountable — if we’re going to be going after building owners, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror.”