Abandoned/ Vacant Property Initiative Year In Review

By Tracey Howarth, Pennsauken Township

At the beginning of this initiative, it was agreed that the Township needed to make progress quickly, so we set a few reasonably achievable goals: get a good count of how many properties we had to deal with; map them out for a visual of where the hardest hit areas are; ensure that we had all the necessary resources in place, such as the most up-to-date ordinances to move forward; and identify and hold accountable the banks and property maintenance companies for as many of the vacant properties as we could. Once those goals were achieved, our mission was to put together a comprehensive program that would help to streamline the vacant and abandoned property processes with the ultimate goal being to sell them, rehab them, and occupy them.

So let’s see how we did…

We identified 621 properties in Pennsauken as vacant; the Township then mapped out each of the properties, which helped us to understand that it’s a problem that really affects each section of town. We also researched multiple townships that are having success getting their properties occupied. Once this research was done, we found that in fact there were a few programs that we needed to adopt in order to drive the accountability to the appropriate parties.

In addition, by partnering with Township inspectors and our residents, we have been able to identify our toughest properties and the property maintenance companies that need our undivided attention. Now that 2016 is in the books, let’s see how we did…

Today, we have 540 vacant properties. Last year, 211 vacant properties were sold. Three hundred and eight vacant properties are registered with a known bank and property maintenance company. The Township has generated over $280,000 in registration fees since the beginning of 2016. We have also updated and added more accountability to our legal options.

The Township has partnered with both the county and some of our internal software companies to begin streamlining this entire process, simplifying it from start to finish. We’ve capitalized and continue to strengthen our relationships with organizations like St Joseph Carpenter’s Society to help us get these properties occupied faster.

We also have 68 properties designated as abandoned, opening the door for the Township to take the next legal steps.

So where did we fall short?

There still are 540 vacant properties in town. Although foreclosures are slowing down, they have not completely stopped. Out of these properties, only 308 are registered. The Township still has research to do here. Leveraging our partnership with the county, Pennsauken’s municipal administration has access to a software program called Community Champions. This software links directly to the banks and property management companies to identify the responsible parties. Not only will this help us get our remaining properties registered and maintained, it will also allow us to focus on moving these properties to the next step in their journey to occupancy.

The Township also continues to research programs that will help our residents stay in their houses if they are facing foreclosure. There’s no silver bullet here. Finding programs that will accommodate the different levels of income and needs of our residents isn’t easy, but we continue to do the research.

So what’s next?

The Township is currently in the process of preparing our case to have the 68 abandoned properties mentioned earlier entered into receivership or a special tax sale. What direction we take will depend on the property. We are also compiling our second list of abandoned properties to be designated by the beginning of the year.

We are preparing to roll out the Community Champions software. Pennsauken’s government has amended our ordinances to accommodate the needs of the program; and we’ve sent the Community Champions team all the necessary information about our current program. Once the tech comes out and sets up the program, we’re off and running!

The Township set the goal to have a comprehensive streamlined process in place for the total program by the end of the year. We’re almost there. Elected officials and municipal staff have put the shell together for a program that will help us move through the process of getting these properties occupied, covering everything from the registration of a property straight through to a safe transition to our newest residents. The program is completed with a seminar for the new home owners on how to manage their finances as a home and property owner. As many know, owning your own home and property is much different than renting a property. These seminars will help people understand how to budget for those “fun” unexpected expenses that occur at the worst times.

This initiative did not start last May. Many of the departments in the Township were actively working to address this issue much earlier than that. Without all the due diligence that was done by our Building Department, Clerk’s Office, Tax Office, Housing Agency, Public Works, the Merchantville-Pennsauken Water Commission, and the Township administration, this initiative would not be this far along, nor would we have been able to get our first list of abandoned properties to this point.

A lot of work has been done by a lot of people and many of our goals have been met. But as like anything else, there is much work still to be done. Rest assured that we all continue to work to alleviate this problem and restore all of our properties and neighborhoods.

As always, if you have any questions or ideas, please feel free to reach out and call me at (856) 665-1000 x 145.

I wish everyone a Happy New Year!

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