Blair Bailey, New Bedford’s tax title attorney, can’t say exactly how many vacant lots there are in the city, only that the number hasn’t dropped significantly since the height of the foreclosure crisis.
“There are at least a few hundred and it hasn’t improved that much because there is a bit of a lag between the time they fall behind and foreclose,” Bailey said. “It is getting a little better now, but as far as the properties go, we had banks walking away from foreclosed properties and they never used to do that.”
Overgrown, debris-strewn and often a magnet for criminals, abandoned properties have been a problem in many southern New England cities even before the recession. Potential safety hazards that generate no tax revenue and reduce the property values of homes around them, vacant lots can drag whole blocks and neighborhoods down with them.
Like it has before, New Bedford is looking to homeowners who live next to vacant lots to help rescue them. In the “Side Yard” program launched last month, New Bedford is offering abutters rock-bottom prices – between $999 and $250 – to buy the vacant lots next to their homes.
In addition to the cheap sale price, New Bedford will provide the buyers financial and technical help to combine the vacant lots with their existing property.
“Every city has some kind of program for dealing with vacant lots, but I don’t know of any that has prices this low,” Bailey said.
The program is called “Side Yard” because the city hopes homeowners who acquire the vacant lots will turn them into private green spaces next door. The lots can also be used as private parking for cars serving the adjacent building.
What new owners can’t do with the vacant lots is build anything on them. All deeds for the new lots will come with development restrictions.
Although some areas of Massachusetts have seen property values soar along with housing demand, that’s not yet the case in urban neighborhoods of the state’s secondary cities.
In New Bedford, like Fall River and much of Rhode Island, the market for older multifamily properties – the city’s classic triple-deckers – remains very soft.
As a result, New Bedford, unlike super-expensive Boston, is looking to reduce density and increase lot size in many neighborhoods by cleaning up and merging abandoned properties with occupied ones.