Harvard drafts chronic nuisance plan to slow crime

HARVARD – Owners of rental units that consistently draw police attention could face public hearings, sanctions and eventually fines if Harvard passes the “chronic nuisance” ordinance officials are currently drafting.

The ordinance – a response to an uptick in crime in the city – also would require that owners of rentals register their properties with the city.

Residences that are home to “nuisance activity” at least three times within a 120-day period could be identified as a chronic nuisance at the discretion of a city official. The owners of residences identified as chronic nuisances would go in front of the Housing Board, where officials would establish an abatement plan to stop the issues.

The plan could include anything from minor steps like having the landlord undergo property maintenance or implement tenant screening procedures to more drastic measures like allowing prosecution of Harvard municipal codes on their private property.

Owners who don’t follow the plan could face a $500 fine.

“It’s the intent of the City Council to be able to work with the landlords when there’s a problem,” City Administrator Dave Nelson said. “We don’t want to be heavy handed on this. We want to solve our problems collectively.”

“Nuisance activity” would be widely defined to include disorderly conduct, felonies and Class A misdemeanors, and violations of several Harvard ordinances.

The idea has gone in front of the city’s Ordinance Committee once, and could come back after the ordinance has been finalized. It could go in front of the City Council as early as April, Nelson said.

Nelson said the desired effect is that landlords will fix the issues before fines have to be assessed. If fines are ignored, the city could eventually take landlords to court.

“Perhaps if we’re successful, we’ll never end up in court and we’ll never issue a ticket,” Nelson said. “Ideally, that would be the goal.”

City officials have said that several community members voiced concerns last year after a string of shootings.

But residents responded unfavorably to an initial idea to curtail crime through a zoning option called a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District. Homeowners in the declared districts wouldn’t have been allowed to change single-family homes into duplexes or rentals.

Instead, officials have moved forward with the chronic nuisance ordinance, which they hope will hold property owners more accountable for the tenants they attract.

Nelson said he could think of seven or eight houses or apartments in town where the chronic nuisance ordinance could be put to good use.

“It would be nice to address our problem, get it fixed and say we don’t need the ordinance anymore,” Nelson said. “But we’ll probably be running that cycle all the time.”

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