Most mayors of cities in the midst of an economic turnaround might try to focus on everything positive while directing attention away from the lingering negative aspects of the community.

John Barrett III of North Adams must have skipped that class in mayor school.

The head of the working-class northern Berkshire County city recently announced he’s going to bring members of the City Council on a tour of what he considers to be disgraceful housing units throughout the city. And he’s going to bring along the local media, with hopes that images of North Adams’ worst properties get splashed across newspaper pages and played over and over again on the local cable access channel.

“This has been a constant thorn in my side since I became mayor,” said Barrett, who is one of state’s longest-serving mayors at some 17 years in office, referring to homes that are in a state of disrepair.

“Now that we have the city trying to move forward, we’re being held back,” he said.

Clearly the city has gained some forward momentum in recent years. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts recently opened, drawing tourists and tourist dollars that were once primarily reserved for Southern Berkshire communities that are home to Tanglewood and the Norman Rockwell Museum. The city has also been a magnet for Internet start-ups, filling long-vacant commercial space and bringing in new jobs. In addition to gaining exposure in national newspapers, North Adams’ rebirth has been featured on CBS and an upcoming segment has been filmed for CNN.

With so much good going on in the city, one might assume that home prices would skyrocket. But that has not been the case for North Adams, and Barrett places the blame squarely in the laps of non-resident landlords whose run-down buildings he claims are ruining property values.

“I call them equity thieves,” Barrett said. “They’re taking the equity out of every other house in the city. No matter where they’re located, they’re hurting other properties, and I’m frustrated by it.

“You can have four or five really good houses in a row,” he continued. “Then you get one. The grass isn’t mowed, the paint is peeling and the garbage is piling up outside. It detracts from the whole neighborhood.”

The result, Barrett said, are property values that are among the lowest in the commonwealth.

Statewide, the median price for non-condominium residential sales was $181,400 for the first half of the year, according to Warren Information Services, a sister company of Banker & Tradesman. In North Adams, the median sales price was less than half of that, at $73,000. And in contrast to the statewide median sales price increase of 12 percent in the first half of 2000, North Adams’ median price actually fell slightly from a $75,000 mark for the first six months of 1999.

“The landlords don’t care about the city, and something has got to be done,” Barrett said.

The mayor said he hoped his planned home tour would have a positive effect on the city in several ways. For one, he said, some property owners might be shamed into fixing up their properties once they are put in the spotlight by the local media.

But equally as important, he added, he wanted the City Council members to see the properties for themselves and get a sense of what they do to the city’s neighborhoods. With that in mind, he’s hoping to get council support if he brings a proposal to take a property through the tax title process and raze the building because it should be deemed unsafe for the community. In its place, Barrett would leave open space or create new in-fill housing.

“I’m committed to doing battle with [the property owners],” Barrett said. “I can’t have them playing politics with the City Council. This issue is above politics.”

Last Impressions
While much of North Adams is experiencing resurgence, there are still many residents who have yet to feel the effects of the new economy. And there are concerns that some of the property owners aren’t leaving their buildings in disrepair because of a lack of pride, but simply because they don’t have the money to fix things up.

Barrett countered that he has tried to meet with many of the landlords in question to see if something could be worked out. “I started bringing [the property owners] in about a year ago if I considered their building to be a blight to the neighborhood,” he said.

He added that the city has several assistance programs in place.

“We have low- to moderate-income rehab loans available,” he said. “Last year we gave out $200,000 for fix-ups. There’s money available to do this.

“We even have a painting program. We’ll give them the paint to paint the house, but they just don’t care about the city.”

Though the tour hasn’t happened yet, the response from the community, according to Barrett, has been good. Since the council meeting where he first proposed the tour has been played on the public access cable channel, the mayor said residents have been calling to make sure run-down houses in their sections of North Adams are included on the roster of shameful sites.

As for the local real estate community, Barrett said he hasn’t seen much reaction from local agents.

“The real estate community is just now starting to realize that North Adams is a very affordable community. But there’s not a lot of room for expansion here, and people will be looking to buy in established neighborhoods,” he said. “A lot of Victorians on the market could be sold, but buyers are not willing to invest in a neighborhood where there’s a poor apartment house. For a lot of buyers, their first impression of North Adams ends up being their last impression. In order to attract people, you have to be attractive.”

“North Adams is attracting a lot of interest from out-of-town buyers looking to move there for the arts or because of the Internet,” said Elizabeth Randall of Elizabeth Randall Realty in neighboring Adams and president of the Berkshire County Board of Realtors. “There’s a lot of change for the positive, and I’m amazed at how many calls I get from people interested in North Adams.

“I don’t want to comment specifically on what the mayor is going to do with the tour, but it’s going to affect property values, and all that is developing in North Adams is better for the whole area.”

“I think it would be good to highlight some of those homes in neglect,” said Michael Zeppieri of RCI Real Estate in North Adams. “But there are people in North Adams I know that can’t afford to fix up their homes, and I’d be embarrassed for them if they were singled out. If [the tour] is just focusing on the landlords, I’d be all for it.

“We’re improving. We are seeing some landlords now moving to fix their properties up, but there are a lot of landlords that haven’t fixed anything up,” Zeppieri added. “They’ve just done the bare minimum to get the occupancy permit.”

North Adams Targeting City’s Unsightly Homes

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 5 min