Scarlet plywood brings shame to slumlords
From Boston Business Journal, June 2, 1997
By Jim Miara, Journal Staff
Although daytime talk show guests leave the impression that shame has lost much of its moral force in today's society, Framingham's "Operation Red," which exposed slumlords to public scrutiny, would indicate that it still has considerable sting.
More than 50 property owners who ignored strongly worded notices and threats of fines eventually jumped through hoops when scarlet plywood was screwed to their buildings' doors and windows and their names and telephone numbers appeared on huge banners draped across the decaying facade
Out-of-state banks scrambled to avoid the bad publicity associated with their property holdings. Real estate professionals expressed concern about whether landlords were being treated fairly.
But the bottom line: Operation Red worked and is now being copied in 20 other Massachusetts communities. Meanwhile, communities in other states are adopting similar shaming tactics.
Operation Red was instituted two years ago by Framingham building commissioner Lew Colten, who was having no luck persuading slumlords to bring their property up to livable standards.
"When I became building commissioner four years ago, the south side of town was in decay," said Colten, an architect with no previous experience in municipal government. "Property in these neighborhoods was being neglected, crime was rising and people were leaving. They call it urban flight, but that's just a nice way of saying when a neighborhood gets miserable then people leave."
Elsa Hornfischer, a town meeting participant, said the experience in her neighborhood was typical of many residents. "There was this property on Union Avenue that was vacant. The windows were broken and animals were running in and out. It was a health hazard. It was just sad," she said.
Hornfischer joined with neighbors to put pressure on town government.
"People came out of the woodwork to fight this," Hornfischer said. "We became a thorn in Lew Colten's side to get things improved."
"Most of these houses were neglected, run-down and dilapidated. They made the neighborhood look like a Dogpatch area," said Barbara Ford, a neighborhood activist and town meeting participant for 30 years.
In addition, she said, abandoned properties were being taken over by crack dealers bringing an unsavory element to family-oriented sections of town.
Colten was equally frustrated. His department had identified 53 properties around town that needed repairs, but efforts to contact landlords yielded little.
"We sent them letters and tickets, and nothing was happening. So we came up with Operation Red. It's a little in line with the `Scarlet Letter' thing. ... We wanted to awaken property owners to own up to responsibility."
After receiving town meeting-appropriated funds, Building Department employees went to work. They began boarding up abandoned property with scarlet plywood stenciled with "Town of Framingham" all over it. Then, a large banner adorned with the town seal was draped across the front of the property.
The banner made it clear what was happening and where the blame lay. In clearly visible letters, the banner gave notice that the property was condemned. Further, it said the landlord had ignored town officials, and "has allowed the property to fall into disrepair and cause blight and decay in your neighborhood," according to Colten.
Below the notice, the name and phone number of the owner was listed. "We put the names and numbers on a Velcro patch so we could use the banner over and over," Colten said.
The results were immediate. "It's amazing what happens when you put their name on a sign and then send them a picture of the event. You get a call back very quickly," Colten said.
Some of the quickest to respond were out-of-state banks from as far away as Texas that viewed the event as a public relations nightmare. Within months, they brought their properties up to code.
Other landlords who came forward pled financial hardships and worked out a schedule to make repairs. "We would give them a list of things to be done. If they couldn't do everything, we would tell them to do something, like paint the outside and fix the windows."
Despite its success, Operation Red caused concern among some real estate professionals.
"It raises a question in my mind about due process," said Richard Dils, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. "Some state regulations, like lead paint removal, are so expensive they leave landlords with no affordable options. It's possible good landlords were caught in this expensive web."
On the other hand, he said, "If you have an absolute scofflaw, [Operation Red] seems like an effective measure."
Neighborhood residents have no such ambivalence. "We supported Lew 100 percent in this. He's the best thing that's happened to Framingham in a long, long time," said Ford.
According to Colten, Syracuse and Watertown, N.Y., have adopted Operation Red, and 20 communities around Massachusetts are using some variation of the program.
This winter, the Massachusetts Municipal Association gave Framingham an award for innovation for Operation Red.
Note: Lewis Colten is presently a member of the Framingham Planning Board