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Public Shaming Laws: Calling out negligent property owners in Mass.

Towns of any size, big to small, have a problem with what officials like to call “nuisance properties.”

That’s a polite way to put it. What they mean are run-down buildings, abandoned rowhomes, things property owners don’t take care of that grow into bigger and bigger problems. Nuisance properties make a neighborhood appear to be a sketchy, undesirable place, and because of that, they become a hot spot for illegal activities.

The word for all of that is “blight” – and a town in New England has found a solution. This week, the Webster, Mass., health board approved what it informally calls “walls of shame.” When the board decides a property is a nuisance, or condemns the building, the town can now place a 4-by-8-foot sign on the building. These signs would explain the status of the building and carry the name of the property owner, address and phone number.

The town hopes these signs will encourage property owners to keep their buildings up to code – and publicly shame those who do not.

“It's trying to embarrass them (the owners) into taking care of what they are supposed to take care of,” Selectman Mark D. Dowgiewicz told the Webster Telegram and Gazette.

Now, this isn’t an attack on the actual residents of the property (though it’s true they sometimes might be the negligent ones). More often, the problem is the landlord – the owner who rents the building to tenants, but does not live there and might not take the best care of the property. Sometimes, a building might be the subject of a foreclosure, where the owner couldn’t make mortgage payments so the property is now owned by a bank that might not even be in the same state, much less the same county, to keep the building in shape.

Webster officials think these banks are the biggest culprits. Building inspector Theodore G. Tetreault told the Telegram and Gazette, “The banks are just not taking care of the properties. And we’ve called them to board them up. We've called them to secure them, clean them up. It falls on deaf ears.”

Shaming laws aren’t uncommon. Last year, the town of Narragansett, R.I., found itself in a court dispute over a law allowing police to place bright orange stickers on homes (usually occupied by college students) that host raucous parties. And in 2004, Ohio revamped its traffic code to allow courts to issue convicted drunken drivers red-and-yellow license plates indicating that they had received a DUI citation. Michigan has a similar law giving convicted DUI offenders paper license plates. A 2005 proposal in Florida, modeled after the Ohio law, would have given drivers pink plates – and given police carte blanche to pull them over without probable cause. (The bill did not get very far.)

In Webster, officials call the law “a big step forward,” but residents are unsure. On the Telegram and Gazette website, one commenter felt the local board was going too far.

“A 4' x 8' sign? Do they even allow businesses to put up an 4' x 8' sign?,” the commenter wrote. “That’s an entire sheet of plywood attached to the outside of private property. Can a town really ignore state law and trespass on private property and install signs without the owners approval?”

Another commenter called the decision “belittling for all involved” and said that the signs wouldn’t do anything to speed up the lengthy process of fixing up a condemned building.

What do you think?

Are Webster’s “walls of shame” a good idea? Will they help the town repair nuisance properties and lessen blight? Or do you agree with the residents who think they are invasive and belittling? If you owned a building in Webster, would these signs make you want to take better care of it? Join the discussion!
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Katie P.
These public shaming laws don't seem to be illegal or unconstitutional, but I doubt that they would be very effective. If these property owners don't care about how the property looks, they likely won't care that they're being outed by a sign on the front. Fines would be much more effective ways of dealing with such properties. When it comes to blight ordinances, the laws aren't targeting upstanding members of society- they're targeting people that don't care about how society views them.

Jeffrey W.
Mr. Gelante/Ledyard High School
These "public shaming laws" are truly a wonderful initiative taken by local governments to promote the community. Citizens, tired of constantly witnessing eyesores, such as an abandoned building, have an easy way to voice their complaints directly to the landowner. In my town, this would be highly beneficial. On the major road there are two properties that have terrible aesthetic appeal. Rather than sell or fix up the property, the owners have made it nearly impossible for progress to be made; both owners having jacked up the selling price to unreasonable heights. With a public shaming law in place, a sign with contact information of the land owner would be placed in front of the properties, resulting in an easier method in which common citizens could express their concerns for the community. The repercussions of this law could include an increase in business and also a decrease in crime, making it truly beneficial to the community.

I believe that what webster did was right because these rundown buildings are harmful to the community, and if they will not do anything about it, then you must force them to do it. As soon as you start putting these signs up, people will try to fix their house. I know I would.

One should not be able to trash the existence of the town that they live in. If you own property, you should be able to keep up the integrity of it. This is really a commentary on how the mortgage system has destroyed this country's economy. If you sign on to be a part of the landowning community, you must be willing to live with the responsibilites of it.

Mrs. Singleton/Ben Davis High School
For the sake of keeping a neighbrohoods clean, that these "nuisance properties" should be called out. One bad seed can bring down the beauty of an entire community. These people who choose to won property should be responsible for keeping it up. We can not allow them to think that they can get away with living like a slob. We neeed to keep them in check.

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