MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Let's say you're one of the millions of Americans facing foreclosure. You made mistakes, borrowed more than you should've or maybe you lost your job and now have to walk away from your house. Well, in some parts of the country walking away isn't so simple, especially if the bank doesn't want your house. From WCPN in Cleveland, Mhari Saito explains.
MHARI SAITO: At 8:30 nearly every Monday morning, employees from Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office stand in this windowless room in Cleveland's Justice Center to auction off hundreds of foreclosed houses.
Unidentified Man: Let's continue sale number 202, case number 661321, do you have a bid?
SAITO: Hoping to buy are a few investors, bargain hunters and the rare person trying to save their house. Most often, it's lawyers from local law firms representing global financial institutions who claim property here. Though these days, that's starting to change.
Unidentified Man: Are there any bids?
(Soundbite of hammer)
Unidentified Man: Not sold for want of bid.
SAITO: With no bid, the lender can either try to sell at another sheriff's sale or do nothing. Doing nothing means the foreclosure is not complete. Cleveland Foreclosure Attorney Larry Rothenberg says doing nothing is becoming more popular.
Mr. LARRY ROTHENBERG (Attorney): Lately, lenders are finding that the costs to purchase the property at the sheriff sale and resell it. And the likelihood of finding a buyer weigh against a decision to buy the property. And so it's become more likely than before that lenders are not entering bids at sheriff's sales.
SAITO: And that changes the foreclosure equation. RealtyTrac's Rick Sharga says employees at his online foreclosure sales company have heard of other cities where lenders are walking away from foreclosures, and worries it could spread.
Mr. RICK SHARGA (RealtyTrac): There are some urban areas where you've had rapid price depreciation, where you also have extreme unemployment issues and nobody's buying the properties. You know, the all those conditions need to be in place before a lender is going to be motivated to do what you're seeing happen now.
SAITO: And when lenders don't complete a foreclosure action at sheriff's sale, the house stays in the homeowner's name. Sharon Little(ph) says she was shocked to find out she still owns a rental property on this busy Cleveland street. She walked away from the house in 2006 when she declared bankruptcy. Since then, thieves have stripped the house of siding, copper plumbing and even windows. She only found out her name is still on the deed only when she got a summons last October to appear in housing court.
Ms. SHARON LITTLE: Eventually, they're going to tear this house down and is going to - the bill - somebody going to have to foot the bill. And frankly I think it should be the bank because it's their house. It's not my house.
SAITO: But not legally. The city of Cleveland is writing tickets for housing code violations to whoever is listed on the deed. Bus driver Curly Jackson(ph) has been on the phone with his loan servicers trying to convince them to foreclose on property he can no longer afford.
Mr. CURLY JACKSON (Bus Driver): I surrendered these properties back to you all. I said, you keep leaving them in my name. I'm getting these tickets. They don't care. They're not getting a ticket. They're not getting threatened with jail.
SAITO: Cleveland housing court officials say they are now seeing homeowners take matters into their own hands. Sharon Little, for instance, wrote up a deed and gave her house to her lender.
Ms. JACKSON: Well, that's because it was their house from the jump. So that's what we do - give it right back to them, you know. You can keep your house. I don't want it.
SAITO: Bankruptcy Attorney Richard Nemeth(ph) has asked state lawmakers to propose a bill that would force lenders to completely follow through with foreclosure or forgive the homeowner's debt.
Mr. RICHARD NEMETH (Attorney): I mean, it's a really sad set of affairs when, you know, people don't want to touch a piece of real estate with a 10-foot pole.
SAITO: County officials here hope that a new land bank will help solve this problem by giving lenders a place to dump unwanted property. But in the meantime, the city is forced to use scarce tax dollars to maintain or demolish some of these unwanted foreclosed houses.
For NPR News, I'm Mhari Saito in Cleveland.
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