The Housing Chronicles Blog: Foreclosed Eyesores

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Foreclosed Eyesores

Chalk another item up for the Law of Unintended Consequences.

It seems that since lenders today don't really have a good handle on properties they own through foreclosures, vacant homes are quickly becoming problems for various cities.

Writing in the upcoming edition of Business Week, Michael Orey reviews what can happen when borrowers who stop paying mortgages end up in a "legal limbo," in which it's not clear who owes taxes or is responsible for upkeep on vacant homes.

But cities and counties aren't waiting for them to figure it out:

The impact goes far beyond the defaulting homeowner, as neighbors and entire communities confront a spreading blight. Vacant residences deprive cities of tax revenue and can cost them thousands to maintain. A 2001 Temple University study in Philadelphia found that simply being within 150 feet of an abandoned property knocked $7,600 off a home's value.

In Buffalo, prosecutor Cooper is bringing lenders before Judge Nowak to hold them accountable. Wielding the threat of liens, which can hold up the lenders' other real estate transactions, she aims to make banks keep foreclosed homes in good condition until a buyer can be found. As an alternative, Cooper or Nowak may try to get lenders to donate properties to community groups or to pay for demolition when houses are beyond repair. "At least in Buffalo," says Cooper, "the days are gone when you can do a foreclosure and walk away without taking care of the property."

Those charged with violations by Cooper include participants all along the complex mortgage-industry food chain, from loan originators to servicers to the Wall Street trusts that buy up the vast majority of home loans and then securitize them. A similar initiative is under way in Cleveland, where Judge Raymond L. Pianka puts lenders on trial in absentia when they fail to respond to charges.

Even places with high property values, like Chula Vista, Calif., a San Diego suburb, are taking steps to avoid the neglect that can occur during lengthy foreclosures. "It seems like a number of the lenders aren't even doing things that are in their own best interest to preserve the asset," says Pianka—a problem he attributes to the fragmented nature of the business. "It's not an address. It's not a property. It's just a loan number," he says. "So they'll push a button in San Francisco, and it will set things in motion to do things with [a] property that don't even make sense..."

If there ever is a national response to the messy legacy left by foreclosures, it might include something like the Buffalo system, which seeks to take action before the presence of abandoned houses hurts entire neighborhoods and which spreads the pain among many players. "We're kind of a crystal ball into what might happen" elsewhere, Cooper says.

Perhaps this trend could launch a new (if temporary) business for out-of-work real estate experts?

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