MMA Innovation Award winner
Award presented on January 24, 2009

When mortgage foreclosures began accelerating in late 2007, Worcester officials wasted little time putting in place a comprehensive response strategy.

The approach that emerged early last year, known as “S.A.V.E. Our Neighborhoods,” was designed to prevent abandoned homes and buildings from becoming eyesores that could drive down surrounding property values and threaten the stability of entire neighborhoods.

A new Department of Inspectional Services, proposed by City Manager Michael O’Brien, put Worcester in better position to monitor and respond to problems such as foreclosed apartment buildings that still had tenants living in them. The new department, with a cabinet-level commissioner, is responsible for overseeing code enforcement, housing and health inspections.

Coordination among departments also was enhanced, O’Brien says, by a central database with up-to-date information on foreclosure notices, homeowners in arrears on their tax bills, and police and fire department reports on vandalism, code violations and other signs suggesting that a building was being neglected. The data is available to all departments, even police officers in their laptop-equipped cruisers.

“In the past,” O’Brien points out, “one department would have failed to realize actions taken by another department.”

Further assisting inspection efforts is a three-person “Nuisance Enforcement Team” created to help support an older initiative designed to deal with neglected billboards and other visual pollution.

In responding to the foreclosure crisis, city officials have paid special attention to the period of time between the initiation of the foreclosure process and when the mortgage company assumes responsibility for the property – a span that can run for months. Rather than standing by while the buildings further deteriorated, the city began going to Housing Court to seek court-appointed receivers.

By the end of 2008, according to O’Brien, 10 such buildings had been placed in receivership, with most of the properties subsequently acquired by a community development corporation or other buyer that could rehabilitate and resell them.

“What was instrumental was that we saw the trends, recognized what was at stake, and then acted,” O’Brien says. “And it meant that we had to retool an organization – city government – to meet that need.”

Last summer, the city launched another program, called Buy Worcester Now, designed to restore confidence in the local housing market. The program, which draws on state assistance through the quasi-public Massachusetts Housing Partnership as well as incentives from local banks, enables participating employers to make it easier for their employees to buy homes in the city.

About 100 homes have been purchased with the assistance of the program, according to O’Brien.

For more information, contact Michael O’Brien at (508) 799-1175.