Economy, expenses catching up to Norwich developer

Norwich - Over the past decade or more, downtown developer Janny Lam acquired properties large and small, residential and commercial in prominent locations and overlooked neighborhoods.

She renovated many of the properties, rented apartments to Chinese casino workers, and attracted ethnic restaurants and small shops to long-vacant storefronts.

But the sagging economy, growing expenses, high taxes, insurance and mortgage obligations have hit the self-described "small businesswoman" with a force she admits she might not overcome.

She renovated buildings that were in danger of collapse - including the Lerou Building at 289-291 Main St., the former Chelsea Landing pub building at 86-92 Water St. - but in some cases found it difficult to find viable commercial tenants. Residential tenants had trouble paying rents as they lost their jobs or saw pay or hours cut.

And negative publicity about her financial woes and pending tax foreclosures have compounded the problem, she said.

"Sometimes it makes the city even worse," she said. "People look at me as a model of outside people investing in the city and say, 'If she can't make it work, no one will.'"

Family members have advised her to "let go" of some properties, but Lam said she has a passion for her work and considers her properties to be like her children.

"Even though they are bad, they are my children," she said. "I worked hard to renovate. Losing my income is losing all my years of effort I put in, and now it's gone. I hate to see them go, but what can I do? The taxes are higher and higher, and the insurance is higher and higher, and the rental income is lower."

The city recently completed tax foreclosures on several small properties on lower Washington Street and in the Jail Hill neighborhood that overlooks the harbor. More foreclosure actions have started on prominent properties, including the Lerou Building, next door to Otis Library, the former Elks Lodge at 352 Main St. and the Thames Plaza building at 101 Water St.

All the properties are owned by companies headed by Lam or shared by her in partnership with others.

In an odd twist, Lam has lost three apartment buildings to the former owner from whom she had acquired the properties - North Haven accountant Eugene Singer.

Singer holds mortgages on several of Lam's properties. When the city tax foreclosure deadline hit for the owner or creditors to pay off the taxes before the city took ownership, Singer's Chelsea Properties LLC paid the taxes and took ownership of an eight-unit apartment house at 44 Laurel Hill Ave., a seven-unit stone apartment building at 35 Washington St. and a two-family house on White Street.

Lam said she never was notified that Chelsea Properties had suddenly taken over ownership of the buildings. She learned when shocked tenants at 35 Washington St. called her after receiving a letter from the new owners.

"I never received a letter saying my property is going to be transferred," she said. "I was shocked when my tenants told me."

Lam said she will consult with an attorney to see if there is a way to challenge the ownership transfer.

Singer could not be reached to comment.

Norwich Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll said foreclosure laws allow for the owner first to pay off the tax debt and retain the property, and then mortgage holders or other creditors have the opportunity to pay the taxes and take immediate possession of the property.

Singer held mortgages on several other properties on lower Washington and School Street owned by Washington Enterprises LLC, which lists Lam as a principal. But Driscoll said no one paid off the taxes on those properties by the May 30 deadline, and the city acquired them.

The city now owns small vacant lots at 37-39, 43 and 45 Washington St., a long-vacant house at 23 Washington St., houses at 59 and 61 School St. and vacant land at 85 School St. Several months earlier, the city took a house at 9 Fountain St. and a vacant lot at 82 and 106 School St. from Washington Enterprises.

Singer's Chelsea Properties LLC also holds mortgages on other School Street apartment houses and on the former Heritage Discovery Center at 77-91 Main St.

Back taxes owed on the former Heritage Discovery Center - which houses the offices of Norwich Community Development Corp., a new Thai restaurant and small businesses on the Water Street side of the complex - were paid in full in April, city Tax Collector Katherine Daley said.

But separately, Chelsea Properties LLC started mortgage foreclosure action against DJ Norwich Enterprises LLC on the heritage center on June 26 on a $300,000 mortgage obtained in 2011 on that property. DJ Norwich Enterprises lists Lam's Norwich address as its business address, with three Flushing, N.Y., members listed, including Henry Shen as president.

Lam strongly criticized the city for pursuing tax foreclosures on her properties as she struggled with the economy. She feels the city is "making an example of her" in a get-tough policy on back taxes and questioned why her tax bills increased rapidly over the years.

In March 2012, Lam joined a lawsuit filed by several property owners in Norwich against the city's tax foreclosure attorney, Amie Wickless, alleging unfair tax foreclosure actions. The suit was dismissed and appealed. The appeal was dismissed in January.

Driscoll said Lam also challenged the tax foreclosure on the Washington Street properties and other properties, and those appeals also were dismissed.

City officials said tax foreclosures are pursued automatically when bills reach certain amounts and no payment plans are in place. Cities and towns charge 18 percent interest on back tax bills, causing back bills to escalate rapidly. Lam's companies did have payment plans on several properties, but in some cases, stopped making payments, Daley said. Some properties owned by companies with ties to Lam are up to date on taxes and face no city action, Daley said.

Lam said the city will not be better off if Chelsea Properties takes ownership of her properties. Many of the properties were run down and vacant when she acquired them.

"When I took over from Singer, I renovated," Lam said. "I refinanced from the bank and did one by one by one and renovated."

c.bessette@theday.com

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