If something on your block doesn't look right—clunker cars that never move, out-of-control plant life, general deterioration—an effective solution is never more than a phone call away.
The Collingswood property maintenance task force, an information-sharing group that comprises a number of local government department heads, provides “a full-court press” that has been a “very effective” check on properties that could threaten to blight a neighborhood, said Collingswood Mayor James Maley.
“Too often, the problem local government has is we don’t get coordinated enforcement,” Maley said.
“Coordinated enforcement is the most effective enforcement. It helps us achieve making neighborhoods better on all fronts.”
The task force, which meets monthly, was established about 25 years ago, Maley said, at a time when the borough suffered a spate of absentee landlords who allowed their rental properties to deteriorate.
Their tenants, however, were often the ones to suffer the consequences.
Maley recalled one renter whose property didn’t have any water for a length of time, and who was unable to address those issues with the landlord.
That led to an impromptu toilet arrangement with the renter “using cups as their sanitary system,” he said.
The problem was compounded by the housing recession, Maley said, which led to an increase in the number of abandoned, foreclosed-upon, and vacated properties in the borough.
But convening a group of officials with enforcement authority—over tax collection, emergency services, water and sewerage, building codes—drove what became overlapping discussions about a handful of neighborhood trouble spots.
“Police would be going back to a property and noticing it was in bad shape, but there was never that process to make that communication to construction code officials,” Maley said.
“It’s all about communication,” Borough Administrator Keith Hastings said. “If it’s brought to our attention, we can make something happen.”
One of the biggest victories for the task force came within the past two years, Hastings said, as the group cleaned up a large, multi-family dwelling on Collings Avenue where police and fire calls had become an all-too-common occurrence.
It took a threat to revoke the owners’ right to rent the property that finally got things fixed, he said, but since then, the property has been incident-free.
So what should Collingswood residents do if they spot a problem on their block?
The first, preferred step is always a conversation with a neighbor—but for those who are uncomfortable being able to resolve such a situation, there’s always an opportunity to make a phone call to borough hall.
“In an ideal world I would like everybody to take care of their property,” Hastings said.
“Ideally, the government shouldn’t get involved in it, but we all know that that doesn’t happen.”
Even after a complaint is submitted, there’s also process and a timeline that must also elapse while the owner is notified.
“Obviously people don’t think that we do it quickly enough,” Hastings said. “Somebody could come to us on Monday and say, ‘the grass is really high.’ We send a letter: five days, and you have to cut your grass.
"Now you’re into next week," he said. "If it rains, then that grass just grew eight more inches.”
If the borough doesn’t hear back from a property owner within that time, then it will authorize the work to be done by the public works department, for the cost of which the property owner will be billed via a lien.
“You have to give them a sufficient amount of time,” Hastings said. “That being said, the ones that we know are vacant, we’ve cut the grass six times this summer.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of the process is recognizing that there’s a quantifiable benefit to property maintenance, Hastings said.
“There are some intrinsic values to this rather than just the property is clean,” he said. “Housing stock rises. Property values rise. There’s an endgame to it.
“And if I’m a landlord and I have to do these things and really make a nice place for a person to come and live and rent, I can charge more,” he said. “There’s a benefit to them following the rules.”
“We’re looking out for the people of Collingswood,” he said. “A clean, tidy neighborhood goes a long way.
Got a task for the task force? E-mail Mayor James Maley at email@example.com or call Collingswood Borough Hall: 856-854-0720.