Not On His Watch
Empty homes attract criminal and squatters, but communities are fighting back
February 17, 2008
By CHIP JACOBS
Special to the Times
After gang members turned an empty house in Pomona into their party hangout, the agent representing the foreclosure property gave them the personal heave-ho by simply moving in.
Nobody bothered Ron Anderson — who is 6 foot 2 and weighs 240 pounds — as he replaced busted windows, painted over graffiti and removed empty beer bottles from what had once been a quaint family abode.
“I told the old owner that we needed a live body in there to show the trespassers that it wasn’t an abandoned house,” said Anderson, 47, of Century 21 Success’ Signal Hill office, who rented and lived in the ranch-style Towne Avenue home for eights months before it sold. “Most of the times properties are invaded because there is nobody there to stop them.”
Unfortunately, there’s just one Anderson and scads of empty foreclosure homes, as a market gashed by sub-prime mortgages staggers into its second year. Nearly 32,000 Californians lost their homes in the quarter ending Dec. 31, a new record, according to DataQuick Information Service.
If experiences from the housing dip of the ’90s and recent studies are any barometer, even homeowners sitting pretty with their own mortgages should be concerned about vacant houses.
Every time a neighborhood experiences 2.8 foreclosures out of 100 owner-occupied properties in a single year, crime there and in the surrounding blocks jumps 6.7%, according to a 2006 census tract study by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Chicago-based Woodstock Institute. A related study by the same researchers concluded that homeowners lose 0.9% of their property value if they are within one-eighth of a mile from a conventionally foreclosed-on, single-family residence. A $500,000 home, for example, would drop $4,500.
“The value of your property is tied to the ability to sell it, and if somebody comes to your block and sees a property across the street with boarded-up windows, looking battered, that’s an exponential impact,” said Geoff Smith, one of the study’s authors. In densely packed communities, a concentration of foreclosures makes it even harder for other homes to sell, he added.
Although empty residences are a hot topic for communities, they are not a popular subject for some lenders.
Washington Mutual, for example, won’t divulge its policies toward unoccupied, foreclosed-on houses, company spokesman Gary Kishner said.
During Southern California’s depressed housing market early last decade, the connection between unoccupied dwellings and criminal activity was evident. Vacated properties across the region attracted crooks and miscreant teenagers in a phenomenon that exasperated neighbors and overwhelmed local cities.
In the southern end of then-bustling Fontana, empty homes were beacons for troublemakers, including scam artists who tried leasing residences they didn’t own to unsuspecting renters. Even in established, middle-class communities such as Sherman Oaks, squatters crept in, with drug activity sometimes following. L.A. County’s northerly reaches had it worse.
“We saw a lot of trespassing and squatting, burglaries and vandalism,” recalled Palmdale Deputy Sheriff Dave Jennings. “We had a record number of empty homes in the Antelope Valley.”
Amid today’s foreclosure surge, such crimes haven’t occurred with the frequency some had feared.
One explanation might be preemptive efforts by local government and heightened vigilance by neighbors.
A recent bill by state Sen. President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) to ease the problem would’ve fined lenders $1,000 a day for failing to maintain unoccupied properties. The bill was narrowly defeated in the Senate on Jan. 30.
* * *
In Fontana, where foreclosures are swelling, police are contemplating an ordinance to force lenders and others responsible for vacated homes to maintain them.
“Places that start to get run down have an impact on more than the person next door,” said Fontana Police Sgt. Jeff Decker. He added: “It affects the whole block.”
Mindful of that, cities, homeowners groups and real estate agents are vowing to make vacated homes tougher to ransack. They want the grounds maintained so it appears that somebody is living on the property. They want windows and doors locked to deter breaks-ins and pools pumped dry to prevent accidental drownings or mosquito infestations.
Lancaster is being particularly proactive and now dispatches code-enforcement officers to trouble-prone houses. The officers board them up and take other safeguards, and then bill the financial institution that owns the structure, using a lien.
Neighboring Palmdale, as well as Simi Valley and other suburban cities, such as Rancho Cucamonga in the Inland Empire, also are attacking the problem with code crackdowns.
“Lancaster and Palmdale have programs in place now, and they aren’t skipping a beat,” said realty agent Greg Galli, chairman of the California Assn. of Realtors’ Troubled Mortgage Workout Task Force. “They have code enforcement people that know the problem homes before they are problems. They’re out there contacting the banks.”
When one bank refused to drain a pool on a foreclosed house, Palmdale officials told Galli, who was representing the property, that they’d jump on it and bill him later.
“So I did it,” he said.
Det. Steve Krauss, burglary coordinator for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Van Nuys Division, said he hasn’t seen a spike in crime, though the division doesn’t break out statistics for vacant houses. Rather, Krauss said, he sees a steady trickle of crimes associated with empty houses and those under construction, where equipment theft is a problem. The danger is being passive, he said, because conditions can snowball — a takeoff on the “broken window” theory that holds that when cities don’t confront urban blight at the first signs, property damage to surrounding structures can spread, infection-like.
“If your neighbors leave a house vacant, you should look out for that house,” Krauss said.
A homeowners association in the Riverside County city of Perris, rife with complaints about foreclosed houses, didn’t wait for authorities to act. The association hired a company to water and cut the grass so the vacated homes wouldn’t attract vagrants and vandals, said Coldwell Banker agent Linda Marie Porraz.
The public’s willingness to act today is markedly different from the ’90s, when hundreds of homes in northern L.A. County with soured Federal Housing Administration loans gave thieves, the homeless and others choice pickings.
Whether lender-owners today are as sensitive to the havoc empty houses can engender depends on the institution itself, real estate agents and city officials said.
* * *
Anderson of Century 21 in Signal Hill, who has lived in other trouble-ridden foreclosure homes he has listed, said banks focused on reselling a foreclosure property take better care of it than an institution looking to get it off the books, even at a big loss. When he moved into the Pomona house, he wasn’t surprised the neighbors were relieved. “They understand that a vacant house is their business too.”
It’s a painful lesson – and widespread. In the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, the subdivision building boom has segued to “Repo” signs and homeowner angst over encroaching graffiti, drug activity, and thefts typically associated with ghettoes. In one hard-hit Atlanta cul-de-sac, meantime, trespassers have struck a quarter of the empty bungalows. Overgrown, neglected yards in the Cleveland area have lured criminals inside and frogs, snakes and insects to the land.
A Minneapolis neighborhood infuriated about a vacated foreclosure that has elicited 911-calls and code violations may have set a precedent. It has sued CitiMortgage, contending the neglected two-story house has depressed area property values, the Star Tribune reported.
Interested in foreclosure costs, the city of Jacksonville, Florida studied the burden of its 1,707 foreclosures from high-cost loans in 2006. Of the $185-million total loss, lenders/investors lost $93.7 million while neighbors lost $46 million in their home worth.
You don’t need foreclosure for empty dwellings to roil neighborhoods. The California Department of Transportation learned this when scores of homes it purchased along the route of the long-delayed Long Beach Freeway (710) Extension through El Sereno, South Pasadena and Pasadena were invaded during the last 15 years. Thieves stole practically everything not nailed down, devil-worshippers and gangs found safe haven, homeless acted like owners, and even the childhood house of famed chef Julia Childs wasn’t immune from squatters. After community and media hullabaloo about it, Caltrans beefed up security and maintenance, and the problem ebbed.
This verison is nearly identical to the one that ran in the Los Angeles Times. Copyright Los Angeles Times.