Landlord attacks drug problem, one apartment at a time
BRATTLEBORO — For one local property owner, having to deal with the scourge of drugs in his neighborhood is just part of doing business.
"There is opportunity to go along with the problems," said Josh Dillingham, who owns two rental properties in Brattleboro and one in Hinsdale, N.H.
One of those properties is 133 Canal St., in Brattleboro.
"This area is known for drug activity," said Dillingham, a billing coordinator at the Brattleboro Retreat. "But when I bought this place, the price was right because of the circumstances. The building is in good shape and I know if I wait long enough I can find decent tenants to move in and still make a profit."
Dillingham moved to Brattleboro about eight years ago and bought his first investment property, where he now lives, at 25 Canal St., in 2015. He added a single-family home in Hinsdale to his portfolio shortly after that, and recently bought his third property, a five-unit building a few doors down from the three-way stop at Canal Street and Elm Street. Four of those units are occupied and he is currently rehabbing the vacant unit.
Dillilngham acknowledged several of the nearby properties are in decrepit condition and are known hot spots for drug dealing. That still didn't dissuade him from purchasing the apartment building.
"I bought this with the ultimate goal of who knows what's going to happen with the other properties, but if someone buys them and turns them around, then this place will be more profitable," he said.
One of the problems, he said, is that the nearby buildings are owned by absentee landlords in New Jersey and Massachusetts. The Reformer was unsuccessful in contacting the owners of either of those properties.
"If you don't have someone actively at the site, it can go to hell real quick," said Dillingham.
Law enforcement agrees with that assessment.
"If you're an absentee landlord, you are contributing to the problem," said Brattleboro Police Chief Michael "Gunny" Fitzgerald.
Dillingham is in constant contact with Brattleboro Police and has shared his concerns with the chief.
"As a property owner, it's frustrating," he said. "We know they are selling drugs out of that building so why don't they just go in and see what's going on? I wish more could be done, but I also understand that these things can take time."
IN PLAIN SIGHT
Fitzgerald said police are aware there are properties where drugs and money are changing hands. He understands that the pace of trafficking investigations can be frustrating to town residents and landlords, because "it is brazen, blatant and people don't even try to hide it anymore."
Fitzgerald said local, state and federal authorities are actively working together to bring solid cases with irrefutable evidence to prosecutors, but it can take time.
Both Dillingham and Fitzgerald agreed that it's impossible to "arrest away" a problem that is nationwide, and not just in Brattleboro.
"We are only one leg of the stool that is a judicial system that is overwhelmed," said Fitzgerald.
Brattleboro Police and other agencies will continue to investigate drug crimes, but more resources are needed to address the roots of the problem, Fitzgerald said. That includes more focus on mental health services and treatment opportunities for those trying to kick a habit.
Dillingham bought 133 Canal Street from Brattleboro Real Estate Investment, which is registered in California. BREI swooped in and bought more than 150 residential and business properties from the estate of Larry Cook after he died several years ago, said Jake Grover, BREI's property manager in Brattleboro.
"This apartment we are standing in [at 133 Canal St.], we rented it to a young girl and everything was fine until her boyfriend came up," said Grover. "The next we know the entire apartment is fortified. It turned into a heroin highway."
The boyfriend eventually got busted and the woman had to move out because she could no longer afford the rent, Grover said. Now, Dillingham is taking the time to clean it up and get it right for the next tenant.
BANKING ON CHANGE
Dillingham admitted finding the right tenants can be a balancing act.
"It is tricky to find good tenants in part because of the reputation the building has," he said. "The catch is, when someone finds out where it is, they either don't want to rent it or if they do, I have to be thinking why do they want to rent here? I have to make sure it's not for some nefarious reasons."
The apartment is in a great location, he noted, close to the schools and downtown, with access to a number of stores and restaurants.
"It's a shame it has this bad reputation," said Dillingham. "But that's not necessarily a permanent thing. Things can change. In this specific location, if a couple of buildings changed hands, the whole complexion of the neighborhood could change."
Grover said he's been excited for the neighborhood since Dillingham bought the building, but he also recognizes the reality that the problems will remain if nothing changes.
"I've been trying to rent or sell the old Domino's location for nearly two years," he said. "And I run into the same exact same thing Josh is dealing with. Somebody looking for a potential site, they look at the location and say 'Not this place.' They don't want anything to do with it. It's a good location and it has parking and it's a prime business spot, but nobody wants to touch it because of this neighborhood's reputation."
The former Domino's, which is still owned by BREI, sits between Dillingham's property and another apartment building, where drug activity has been known to occur. All three buildings share a parking lot.
SEEKING A DETERRENT
One of the first things Dillingham did after he bought 133 Canal St. was to install surveillance cameras, two of which look out over the parking lot.
"It's not a secret," he said. "We want people to know they are being watched and I want my tenants to know they are safe."
But not even cameras that are visible to anyone who enters the parking lot deter the activity. In January, Dillingham reviewed the surveillance footage for two different days and counted 109 separate vehicle visits on one day and 131 on the second.
"I can attest to the drug activity," said Grover. "Back when I was taking care of this place, it was the same deal. We had an average of one overdose a week in the parking lot. It seems some of that has subsided in the last year or so, but right before Josh bought this place it was 'on fire.' Constant overdoses. Every day you would hear about something happening."
Dillingham also had to erect a fence between the parking lot and the backyard of his apartment building because people were hanging out there above the Whetstone Brook, using it as a de facto shooting gallery.
"You would go down to the backyard and find needles everywhere," he said.
"Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of needles," added Grover.
'A DELICATE BALANCE'
BREI now owns only four properties in Brattleboro. One of those properties is the Fisher Building, at 53 Elliot St., which has both commercial and residential units.
"It's a delicate balance of keeping the right tenants in a space and not discriminating against anyone," said Grover. "Everyone deserves a chance for an apartment. But this problem has no boundaries. It cuts across gender, class, race .... A woman moved in [the Fisher Building] and everything is fine, she's got a full-time job but something happened and she picked up a nasty habit. She left for rehab but people broke into her apartment and started squatting in it. The next thing you know ... "
Both Grover and Dillingham noted that the legal steps they must take to evict someone means a problem might linger for several months.
"It can take six months and they're not paying rent," said Dillingham. "Meanwhile, they're trashing the place because they know they're getting evicted."
"I've seen some horror scenes in some of these apartments," said Grover.
"It's a calculated risk," said Dillingham. "You're never going to avoid all those situations, but if you do your due diligence with screening, you can mitigate those risks. It's a numbers game. You're never going to eliminate all risk totally, but if you have a portfolio that's a good enough size, you can take those one-off hits every so often."
Dillingham rents his three-bedroom units for $1,150 a month and his one-bedroom units for $750, heat and hot water included.
"The people I rent to can't afford to buy their own homes. They need a place to live. So if I can give them a place that's affordable, safe and clean ..."
"If not for people like Josh fighting to keep these apartments standing, they would all deteriorate and go by the wayside," added Grover. "This is a piece of pride for Josh. He doesn't want to see this neighborhood going to hell."
Police can't do the job alone, said Fitzgerald. He said those who are concerned about and have evidence of drug dealing in Brattleboro should be in touch with the police department. He also insisted that for their own safety, they shouldn't not take the law into their own hands.
"The more people who are involved, whether that's a landlord or the tenants, the better chance we have with helping them insure the quality of life of their building," said Fitzgerald.
Dillingham said it's also important to note that while local people are addicted to drugs, it's out-of-towners who are taking advantage of their addiction.
"People that are doing the damage in this town aren't people who are from Brattleboro," said Dillingham. "They are people preying on the problem this town has."
Dillingham is not going to give up. In fact, while he is fixing up the vacant apartment at 133 Canal St., he is keeping his eye out for other investment opportunities.
"When you make an investment, the bottom line has to make sense," said Dillingham. "This was something I was looking to do for my own financial well-being. I also felt it would be nice for the town for someone to come in, do some work, fix it up and get the ball rolling so that maybe others will do the same thing. My goal is to make this place nice and to make sure the people that move in here are good people, who pay the rent and are respectful to their neighbors."
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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