WOONSOCKET – To keep from being kicked out on the street, a group of merchants in Main Street's embattled Commercial Block agreed to share a $6,600 utility bill that's been ignored by the Florida bank that foreclosed on the property and the Providence company the bank hired to manage it.
Jamil Safdar, the proprietor of Liberty Market, said he and six other commercial tenants agreed to chip in at the eleventh hour even though the bill isn't their responsibility. The deadline for payment was Friday morning.
“We want to stay in business,” said Safdar, who spearheaded the collection drive. “Every single person I talked to said they would pay.”
The Commercial Block, an anchor of commercial activity on the southern leg of Main Street, houses 10 storefronts, including three that are vacant, from 95-117 Main St. The owner is a holding company for Bayview Loan Servicing of Coral Gables, Fla., and Westcott Properties of Providence manages it.
In addition to commercial tenants, there are 16 efficiency-style apartments on the second story. Some of those remain occupied, though the owner of the property has instructed them to leave.
On Wednesday, the city notified all the tenants in the building, commercial and otherwise, that they had 48 hours to vacate the premises unless the water and sewer bills owed by IB Property Holdings were paid. The bills have been in arrears since July 2010, officials say.
While residential tenants haven't been paying rent to anyone since the property lapsed into foreclosure, the merchants say Westcott began collecting rents from them last fall to cover fuel oil and other essentials to keep the building habitable.
Safdar said that since Westcott had failed to pay the utility bills from the rent money of merchants, they would deduct the money from what they owe Westcott for rent. Joy Riley, the president of Westcott, did not return a telephone call for comment on this story.
Matt Wojcik, the city's economic development director, said the eviction of commercial tenants from the Commercial Block would have been a blow to the economic stability of the downtown area, but officials were prepared to follow through.
“The city enforces its water and sewer policy equally across all customers because it's not fair to have businesses, landlords and homeowners who pay their bills on time subsidizing other property owners who don't pay.”
The Commercial Block has been in the limbo of foreclosure since mid-2009, after the prior owner, Normand Beaudoin, defaulted on a $996,000 note he borrowed against the property some two years earlier. For a time, none of the tenants paid rent to anyone after the building fell into foreclosure, but merchants say Westcott later began asking them for rent to cover the costs of operating the building.
Still, some complain that essentials, like heat, remain spotty.
“We haven't had heat in the building for three days,” one merchant said Friday.
Recently, IB Property Holdings, through a Providence attorney, notified all the residential tenants that they must vacate the premises by May 1. The letters went out after Westcott began aggressively marketing the property, which it had listed for sale at a price of $345,000. Several groups of prospective suitors from as far away as New York toured the building about a month ago.
Now it appears the building may have been sold. Wojcik and Safdar both say they have heard that Westcott has a buyer, although no records have been filed at City Hall yet to indicate that a transaction has been completed.
Like other tenants in the building, Safdar says he hopes that higher rents won't force him to look elsewhere to set up shop when the new landlord takes over.
“We want to stay here,” he said. “It's a living. It's not making me a millionaire, but it's a living.”