BOSTON — It's a menace that has grown unabated, tripping up city government officials and deteriorating the atmosphere of urban neighborhoods: overgrown trash-strewn vacant lots.
But recently a trend is emerging as many cities around the nation are taking a scythe to the situation in an attempt to improve the living environment of the neighborhoods and restore a sense of pride in the community.
In Boston, a new program called "Clean It or Lien It," implemented this summer, encourages owners of vacant lots to keep their land mowed and free of debris.
The program, according to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, has been highly successful and popular among the residents.
"People love it," Mayor Menino states. "It's part of the program to restore pride in the neighborhoods and increase the quality of life."
John Eade, director of the Inspectional Services Department in Boston, says the problem of public eyesores rests in privately owned lots rather than property owned by the city.
Some owners attempt to elude inspectors by not listing a street address or name with their property and only listing a post office box or bank account. A Massachusetts law now demands owners report addresses so they can be reached directly.
Signs are posted
The "Clean It or Lien It" program specifically targets private ownership. Here's how it works: Under the city sanitary code, a nuisance notice is given to negligent vacant lot owners. "Clean It or Lien It" signs are then posted in the lot and a second notice is given if no action has been taken within a week. If the problem persists, the city has the lot cleaned and a lien of up to $1,000 is placed on the property to cover the overhead costs of the work.
Mr. Eade says the liens are converted to the owner's tax bill within a matter of months and if the taxes are not paid the city takes steps to foreclose on the property.
"In one way or another we'll recoup the money or get the land in responsible hands," Eade says. "We want to eliminate neighborhood nuisances and public eye-sores."
Boston now has a list of 500 privately owned lots to be cleaned. While lots may be getting tidied up in Boston, other cities are also sprucing up vacant properties - in some cases involving the community in the process.
Dallas has contracts with nonprofit groups in areas of high vacant lot concentration. The groups are an integral part of the city's "Neighborhood Mow Clean" project.
Neighborhood associations, such as the "Voice of Hope Ministry" in west Dallas, are contacted to clean lots of delinquent owners.
Boys and girls employed at near minimum wage clean up the lots and take a photo of the cleaned property. The photo of the cleaned property is forwarded to the city which reimburses the nonprofit organization.
"It provides a job for those who are unable to locate employment and it also brings pride back into the community," says Shirita Johnson of the Dallas Code Enforcement Department. "We are definitely on top of the problem and the neighborhood associations have helped us tremendously to keep Dallas beautiful."
Greg Jones, community and maintenance director for "Voice of Hope," has noticed positive results stemming from the "Neighborhood Mow Clean" project.
During the first two weeks of the program, "Voice of Hope" workers had cleaned 51 lots. "We are on a mission now to clean up as many lots as we can," Mr. Jones says.
One of Jones's goals is to bring the community together and build a positive relationship with neighborhood youths on a year-round basis. With over 3,000 neglected lots in the west Dallas area, according to Jones, there is plenty of work to be accomplished.
"We have built an avenue and bridge to bring us all together for the benefit of everyone - the whole community, the whole city," Jones says.
Cleaning the lots has been a source of unity for those affected by the program's work, and now community members are taking an interest in improving the standard of living and the quality of life.
Ultimately, Jones hopes to erect houses on the vacant lots, but first, he says, it's necessary to clean them up.
The Chicago streets and sanitation department is also employing teenagers during the summer. More than 500 teenagers four days a week are working to clean lots around the city.
In the first seven days they hit 145 lots. Liens are put on the neglected properties once the work has been inspected by city officials.
Chicago is also cracking down on illegal fly-dumping (corporate trucks dumping waste in vacant lots).
Terry Levin, spokesman for the department of streets and sanitation, says citizens are instructed to call 911 if fly-dumping is seen in process. The 911 calls are designed to urge citizens to take responsibility for their environment.
A new law has also been introduced in Illinois allowing the seizure of vehicles discovered to be illegally dumping materials. All contracts a corporation has with the city will also be cancelled if it is discovered to be directly responsible for fly-dumping.
"You can lose billions of dollars while trying to save $100 in illegal dumping," Mr. Levin says.
With the advent of the new seizure law and 911 calling, Levin says businesses are being much more careful and are taking the new regulations seriously.
"We happen to have a mayor [Richard Daley] that really hates trash and litter," Levin says. "Beautification is a priority."