WOONSOCKET – Time's running out for tenants who've been living rent-free in one of Main Street's largest mixed-use buildings since the property lapsed into foreclosure last year.
Westcott Properties, which manages the Commercial Block, has informed a dozen tenants who live upstairs that they have until May 1 to move out or they'll be evicted, says Murray Gereboff, the company's lawyer.
The notices coincide with stepped-up efforts by Westcott to sell the Commercial Block – 95-117 Main St. – owned by a holding company for a Florida bank since last August. Westcott is asking $345,000 for the parcel, which includes 10 ground-floor storefronts, most of them rented, and 16 efficiency apartments upstairs.
Though the living conditions inside are seedy and the structural integrity of the building is questionable, the notices have some tenants upset.
Krystle Martin, 23, says she wants to move out, but she has no idea where's she's going to find a place that will accept her with her two pit bull dogs.
“I've been looking,” says Martin. “If I end up homeless with two dogs – that's my big fear. I mean, what the hell am I going to do? I didn't expect to be forced out. I wanted it to be my choice.”
Martin, who supports herself on a waitressing job, says the Commercial Block has been a good spot for her because it's on a RIPTA bus line and she doesn't have a car. Her job is in Providence.
Martin says she used to pay $900 a month rent, but she stopped paying the month before the bank took the property. No one's asked for rent since. She says she's managed to put aside some money for a new place, but she's still having trouble finding someone that will take her with her pets.
Joy Riley, the president of Westcott, couldn't be reached for comment about the Commercial Block, though a receptionist for the company confirmed it hasn't been sold. Gereboff said he didn't know much about the building or its tenants – he is acting strictly as an agent for Westcott and simply doing what he was told.
But Gereboff said that under state and federal law, anyone who is living in a property which has been foreclosed upon automatically becomes a “tenant at sufferance.” That means that whatever rights they had as tenants previously are suspended, and whoever is in charge of the property can evict them.
Gereboff said Westcott did not ask him to send the relocation advisories to any of the retail tenants on the ground floor.
Bayview Loan Servicing of Coral Gables, Fla., foreclosed on the building after the prior owner, Normand Beaudoin, defaulted on a $996,000 note he had borrowed against his equity in the property in 2007. Around the same time, Beaudoin built a new log cabin in Cumberland worth $422,000, the town's records say.
Despite Westcott's efforts to market the Commercial Block, city officials are concerned the building is at risk of becoming a major eyesore that could drag the south end of Main Street into a spiral of blight.
Matt Wojcik, the city's economic development director, says it will take a savior to revitalize the building, because it has so many structural and fire code problems, among others. This November, when the oil tanks ran dry, city officials seriously considered declaring the building uninhabitable. Some tenants didn't have heat for days.
About two weeks ago, Westcott brought in four parties interested in buying the property for a tour, said Wojcik. One was from New York, two were from Boston and the other was Gary Fernandes, a local developer who is credited with saving a number of historical landmarks from the wrecker's ball over the years, including the Falls Yarn Mill – now the thriving River Falls Restaurant.
It will take someone with deep pockets and a soft spot for Woonsocket, maybe both, to finance the repairs the Commercial Block needs and stay profitable, says Wojcik.
“It needs an angel investor to go in and buy it,” he says. “Someone with a lot of money, or a modest amount of money and a deep passion for helping Woonsocket.”
While the commercial tenants on the ground floor don't appear to be at risk of eviction – at least not immediately – some are still worried about what the future will bring for the Commercial Block.
Rene Belanger, proprietor of Flea Market Square, says he hopes he'll be able to work out a lease with whoever buys the building so he doesn't have to find a new location for his antiques and used-merchandise store.
“It's done me okay for 13 years,” says Belanger. “I'm not getting rich but I'm making a living.”