This home on Willowdale Avenue is one of 71 homes registered with the township as being vacant. Although neighbors who live near one of these homes complain that are not being well-maintained, the number of vacant properties has actually dropped since 2017.
KELLY NICHOLAIDES/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

BY KELLY NICHOLAIDES
for MONTCLAIR LOCAL

The amount Montclair paid out to attorneys that deal with vacant property issues increased by 36 percent last year, illustrating what some residents say is a problem in the township.

There are currently 71 registered vacant residences, empty for 30 days or more, in Montclair. But that number is actually down from the 82 registered vacant properties back in 2017.

Properties that are vacant for 30 days or more must be registered, in accordance with a 2013 ordinance governing vacant and abandoned residences. The registration fee is $500 for the first six months. First, second, and subsequent renewal fees are $1,500, $3,000, and $5,000, respectively. Properties actively marketed for sale or rent, and containing all building systems in working order are excluded.

The highest number of registered vacant properties, 30, are located in the Fourth Ward, while the Second Ward has 20, the Third Ward has 13 and the First Ward has eight.

Thirty-one of the 71 properties have active construction, said Katya Wowk, township communications director.

“Our goal is to ensure the safety and security of the community by enforcing local and state codes to make sure the properties are maintained,” Chapter 249 reads.

Santarcangelo Law, LLC has been “advice and counsel, to do litigation and related work” related to Montclair’s vacant housing since 2016. The current agreement shows, the firm charges Montclair a rate of $80-$160 an hour.

The firm exceeded the amount in its $65,000 professional services agreement by $23,254 last year, with a busy last quarter, township officials said. So far in 2019, Montclair has paid $34,125 as part of the 2019 agreement for $65,000 in professional services.

“Normally someone will call and complain about tall grass and other maintenance issues. Code enforcement then tries to locate the owner,” said Wowk. “The law firm represents us because we may often take property owners to court or we’re are communicating with bank lawyers.”

A sign reflects that this home is vacant and unsafe for inhabitants.

When a property is not being maintained, particularly with lawn work and snow removal, the town completes the work and bills the property owner. If the bill is not paid, a tax lien is placed on the property. If the property is sold, the buyer must satisfy the lien.

Tax liens averaging $250 each for snow removal at nine vacant residential properties after a March storm were approved by the council in May. The homes are located on Oakcroft, North Mountain, Virginia, Watchung, Claremont, and North Fullerton avenues and Grove, Elm, and Chestnut streets.

A drive around to the addresses listed for the recently approved tax liens revealed signs of abandonment or extended periods of vacancy: overgrown grass, chipped paint, padlocks, overflowing mailboxes, and letters shoved into doors. Neighbors spoke on condition of anonymity.

An Elm Street resident said a dumpster on a neighbor’s driveway has been there for two weeks, with no activity. Weeds crept around the single-family house, throughout front and back yards, and along the grass bordering the public sidewalk. “Nobody has lived there for almost a year. The house was just sold two months ago. The whole property is an eyesore. I cut the grass once, but I’m not doing it for free,” he said.

The 2,902 square-foot Elm Street home was built in 1900. It was sold for $285,000 in 2018 and is assessed at $261,600, down from $327,900 last year, according to tax records. Taxes of $13,969 are up to date on the property.

Built in 1897, a Willowdale Avenue house bears a collapsing porch roof. It was empty three years ago when a neighbor said he moved to the street he described as quiet.

“There’s been a lot of activity there over the last couple of weeks. Montclair Fire Department or code people were there every day, and it was boarded up,” said a neighbor. “I heard a couple of homeless people were [staying] there. I’ve seen people hanging around, on and off, but minimally, in the last year or so.”

A Uniform Construction Code placard indicates the Willowdale house has been deemed “unsafe for human occupancy” since January. To satisfy a judgment with an estimated $619,945 sale, the Essex County Sheriff’s Department posted a June 11 public auction notice. The house was purchased for $160,000 in 2001. The house is assessed at $255,000, down from $301,100 last year, tax records show.

A manicured lawn and floral landscaping at a Virginia Avenue home shows effort to maintain and market the property. It will be listed for sale through HUDhomestore.com, but signage also shows that it has been unsafe for occupancy since 2017. The 1,686 square-foot single family was built in 1925. Broken bricks line the entrance steps. The structure is assessed at $28,300, down from $113,100 in 2017. The 2018 property tax bill was $6,235 and taxes are paid up to date for 2019.

Recently a Claremont Avenue resident who identified as “Renee” at a mayor and council meeting inquired about two Greenwood Avenue properties. “They’ve been dilapidated almost 10 years and have remained largely unkempt the entire time. Given the recent redevelopment of the area, and with two festivals, so many people going back and forth, there was so much garbage. It’s really an eyesore. Four years ago, there was a dead cat there for six or seven days,” she said, adding that the town promptly removed the carcass after being notified.

Town officials told her they would find out about the properties’ status.

The vacant properties program is self-sustaining. Montclair collected $352,250 in registration fees related to vacant properties in 2017, $182,500 in 2018 and $54,400 so far in 2019, Wowk said.

Following registration of vacant residential properties, the owners must provide access to the township for exterior and interior inspections. In addition, the building must be enclosed and secured against unauthorized entry. A sign indicating the name, address and telephone number of the owner, or the owner’s authorized agent, must be affixed to the building. Boarding up of open and broken windows is allowed for no longer than 45 consecutive days. Fines for violations of the rules and regulations range from $500 to $1,000 for each offense and are assessed daily, according to borough code.

An estimated 200 municipalities have vacant property registries. Investors sued Gloucester County in 2017, claiming its vacant property registry is unconstitutional and charges exorbitant fees. The New Jersey League of Municipalities has stated that case law supports the towns’ registries.

“The [registration] program succeeds by pushing owners to rehabilitate properties and get them off the list. When properties are brought back into use, the township sees higher assessments,” said Wowk.