In this article Laura Delgado chronicles her search for the history of an abandoned property in Boston. Laura is a Senior Research & Development Analyst at the City of Boston Department of Neighborhood Development.
Every fall I embark on a tour of the whole city of Boston seeking out distressed buildings. I take out a City-owned Prius with my colleague, and we slowly survey distressed buildings from Hyde Park to Brighton to East Boston. Some of the buildings simply are boarded up, while others have holes in the roofs through which tree tops emerge. By January, we will have surveyed close to four hundred properties, noting which ones are boarded and burned as well as which ones have been renovated or demolished in the past year.
The Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) began surveying distressed buildings in 1997, when there were over a thousand in Boston. Our goal is not only to identify where these distressed buildings are, but also to encourage owners to put them back into productive use. Vacant, distressed buildings attract crime and vermin, can be fire hazards, and depress the property values of neighboring homes. We use the data we collect to produce reports, to guide DND outreach and development initiatives, and to reach out directly to absentee owners.
Some of these buildings have been distressed for over fifteen years, and I have always been curious as to why this is. We’ve had a real estate bubble as well as a foreclosure crisis during this time period, yet these properties remain static. Why? What are the owners waiting for? Why do they want to keep them and pay property taxes, but never use them? This summer we tried to find out the stories behind these persistently distressed buildings.
The following is the search for the story behind 176 Humboldt Avenue in Dorchester.
1. Driving by 176 Humboldt Ave., one sees a large, boarded, residential property covered in murals and seemingly abandoned. It has looked like this since 1997, except that the once vibrant murals are now faded and the white exterior has grayed.
2. In trying to find out what this building is and who owns it, I first go to the City of Boston Assessing Department, www.cityofboston.gov/assessing/search. I find out that this building is assessed as a transient group quarter/nursing home – or commercial property type 304 – and that the use has been commercial since at least 1985. I also find out that it is currently owned by Green Ink Development of Roxbury and Tyler A. Pam. Should I decide to reach out directly to the owner, I note that his mailing address is 42 Bow Street #3 in Somerville. Lastly, I scroll down to “View Quarterly Tax Bill and Payment Information.” From this I learn that the owners owe over $6,000 in taxes for last year and another $1,500 for this year. So from this I’ve gathered that it’s owned by a local developer who is having financial issues.
3. I want to know who Green Ink Development of Roxbury is, so I go to the MA Corporations Database, http://corp.sec.state.ma.us/corpweb/corpsearch/CorpSearch.aspx. A quick search shows me that Green Ink is a Somerville-based for-profit developer run by Tyler Alexander Pam and started in 2010. At the bottom of the page, I look up Green Ink’s filings and learn that the last filing was made in July 2012. It seems that Green Ink should have filed an annual report in July of 2013, and maybe this is another sign that the organization is struggling.
4. Next, I go to the MA Registry of Deeds, http://masslandrecords.com, to investigate the ownership history of Humboldt Ave. After selecting Suffolk District, I go to Search Criteria and select Property Search under Recorded Land (occasionally properties are found in Registered Land, but usually it’s Recorded Land). The online registry records go back to 1974, but the oldest record for Humboldt Ave. is from 1983. It is a petition by the City against owner Pearl Sheriff Dillingham to foreclose on the property for unpaid taxes. What follows are tax takings and repayments up until 1999. In 1999, a notice to reclaim costs reveals that the City boarded the property in 1998. Also in 1999, Ms. Dillingham sold the property to the Veterans Benefits Clearinghouse Development Corporation for $75,000, which later sold it to Green Ink Development of Roxbury. The actual 1999 deed (click View Images) informs me that Ms. Dillingham lived in Kingston, MA, purchased the property in 1973, and she filed for bankruptcy before selling it.
5. I now have a good idea of who has owned this property over the last 40 years, but what is the history of the structure? For this I go to Inspectional Services’ Building Permit Search, www.cityofboston.gov/isd/permitsearch/default.aspx. I select “Permits Issued before December 15, 2009,” which currently provides access to all permits, pre- and post-2009. For 176 Humboldt Ave., I find 73 permits. The oldest is from 1897, when the home was built. It was built as a single-family dwelling, owned by Mary L. and Annie B. Fitzgerald. Other permits show that it was converted to a two-family home in 1923, to a three-family home in 1937, and to a nursing home in 1958. Ms. Dillingham tried to convert it to a lodging house in 1994, and the Veterans Benefits Clearinghouse Development Corporation tried to convert it from a 32-bed nursing home into 12 units of affordable elderly housing, but both were unsuccessful. Most recently, Mr. Pam of Green Ink filed permits to secure the property and possibly demolish it. While the property is vacant, all of the changes in ownership and filings of permits tell me that it is not abandoned. There have been many attempts to put it back into productive use over the years, but none have panned out yet for financial, and possibly other, reasons.
6. At this point, I have a broad sense of who has owned the building over the years, how its use changed, and that various owners faced financial difficulties. Now it is time to go beyond the public databases and research the various actors as well as what the nursing home was like when it thrived.
Post and photos by Laura Delgado. This post is one in a series documenting In This Building: Multimedia and Place-based Storytelling, a class at MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning in the fall of 2013.