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Vacant Manchester building damaged by fire wasn't insured

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 05. 2018 11:46PM
Overgrown weeds and bushes surround 416 Central St., where Manchester firefighers quickly put out a fire Thursday morning. Neighbors said the house has been vacant for at least five years. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — The three-story Central Street apartment building damaged in a fire last week — a long-vacant building frequented by vagrants — was not insured and not on a city list of derelict buildings, a city fire official said Friday.

The lack of insurance means that the owner — a family trust 1½ years behind on its taxes — will be responsible for cleaning up the property, boarding up the structure and repairing any damage, said Mitchell Caddy, the deputy Manchester fire marshal.

“That (insurance) is the second question I asked after his name,” Caddy said. “Obviously if there’s insurance, there’s money coming in.”

A fire last Thursday morning damaged the third floor of the building at 416 Central St., a building that neighbors said had been vacant for years and became a crash pad for vagrants. Fire officials described a third-floor bedroom as a shooting gallery. The floor was littered with syringes and vagrants collected human waste in water bottles and a five-gallon bucket.

The fire sheds light on the city’s continued problem with vacant and derelict properties, a problem Mayor Joyce Craig said she learned about during her police ride-alongs when she ran for mayor.

Craig spokesman Lauren Smith said the fire and police departments “do a good job monitoring problem properties that the city is aware of.” And the tax collector aggressively uses the tax deed process for landlords who owe back taxes. That encourages landlords to either pay back taxes and improve their property or lose them to the city.

However, 416 Central St. is not on a list of about 15 to 20 vacant, derelict properties that the Fire Department keeps an eye on, Caddy said.

“We didn’t even know about it,” he said.

Caddy said anyone concerned about derelict structures in their neighborhood should contact the Fire Prevention Bureau.

The property is overgrown, with weeds and small trees nearly shielding the entire first floor and stretching to the second. Three abandoned cars are scrunched together in the parking lot.

Caddy said the owner — the Zembruski Family Realty Trust — had secured the building as of Friday. That meant the first floor windows and doors are either boarded up, locked or nailed shut. But the aftermath of firefighters battling the blaze — broken second floor windows, roof holes, partially burnt debris — remain.

Neighbors told the New Hampshire Union Leader they have complained about the property to city officials to no avail.

Police spokesman Lt. Brian O’Keefe said a search over the last six months found one call related to the property — on July 22 for a possible squatter. “(The call) appeared to be unfounded meaning no one was there when officers arrived,” he wrote in an email.

Craig’s office said it has received a call from a Central Street resident about a drug raid and asking to meet with Craig and Police Chief Carlo Capano. Smith said she did not have the exact address available.

State Rep. Amanda Bouldin, who represents Ward 5, said she recently spoke to a Central Street family. They told Bouldin they had called police to complain about the property, but no one ever showed up. Bouldin, a Democrat, said she’s spoken to constituents about other abandoned properties in her ward.

“Abandoned properties and absentee landlords pose an ongoing problem in Manchester,” said Bouldin, who said she hopes to address it with legislation.

Caddy said a process exists for the city to deem a property a hazard, to take possession of it, to demolish it and then sell it to cover the costs of the work.

On Friday, he spoke to the city Department of Planning and Community Development, which would initiate such a process.

“It takes time. You can’t walk into court today and walk out with a demolition order,” Caddy said.

Caddy said most of the building was filled with furniture and possessions of the residents who had lived there years ago. While the fire is not deemed suspicious, he said an investigation to the origin continues, and fire inspectors hope to find the people who were in the building at the time of the blaze.

Public Safety Manchester

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