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Town Compels Lenders to Care for Vacant Homes

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Town Compels Lenders to Care for Vacant Homes


Town Compels Lenders to Care for Vacant Homes

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The National Association of Realtors said yesterday it expects home sales to fall to a five-year loan this year - low this year. Troubles in the mortgage market are making it hard for some would-be buyers to find loans. Home foreclosures already jumped nearly 60 percent during the first half of the year.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports on a city in Southern California that wants lenders to look after houses that borrowers can no longer afford.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Code enforcement manager Doug Leaper(ph) pulls up outside a house in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista. There's a For Sale sign in the front yard where grass has given way to weeds and dirt.

Mr. DOUG LEAPER (Enforcement Manager, California): One of my officers got a report on a potentially dangerous situation with a open gate in a green pool, so we can go. So we can go and take a look.

HORSLEY: Phonebooks delivered weeks ago sit untouched by the side of the house. In the backyard, a window screen is pulled off and the abandoned swimming pool is full of green, slimy water.

Mr. LEAPER: I didn't how many swimming pools we had in the city until we went through a cycle like this. And then all of a sudden all the pools go green in all the vacant homes and then we get the call.

HORSLEY: Vacant homes have become a problem in this city of 175,000, where more than 800 homes are in foreclosure and three to five more join the list every day. Leaper, a former police officer, says you don't have to be a detective to spot the abandoned houses in the neighborhood.

Mr. LEAPER: The first thing we see is a dead lawn, and then we'll look further and go, okay, well, there's debris, leaves and things pile up around the front door. That means the front door hasn't been opened or closed in a while. Utility disconnect notices or late notices; nice bright red or orange stickers or flyers on the door. I've been doing this a long time and I've dealt with a lot of these - I can drive around and go, yup, pre-foreclosure.

HORSLEY: Leaper says in Chula Vista many homeowners don't wait around to be evicted but move out as soon as they get their first notice of default. In some cases they were speculators who never moved in at all. A lot can go wrong in a vacant house in the months before a lender can re-sell the property. That's why Chula Vista just passed a law requiring lenders to hire a management company for vacant houses as soon as the buyer defaults.

Mr. LEVER: I know their bottom line is dollars. Spend nothing you don't have to, get everything back you can. I admire that. That's great. It's the American way. However, my bottom line is people. The people that live in that house next door, the people who live in that house behind, the people that may be down the street trying to sell their house that can't because whoever's going to look at their house has to drive by this one and looks and goes what the heck's going on there?

HORSLEY: Other cities have taken note of Chula Vista's law and some are thinking of copying it. Virginia Tech professor Joseph Schilling, who co-founded the National Vacant Properties Campaign, says local governments are worried about the ripple effects abandoned houses can cause.

Mr. JOSEPH SCHILLING (Co-Founder, National Vacant Properties Campaign): This problem is going to get worse before it gets better and I think what's unique is that it is hitting places like Southern California or Denver and Dallas. And for a lot of Western cities I think this is new territory.

HORSLEY: Some lenders already do what Chula Vista requires. Senior vice president Kathy Mencia(ph) says Wells Fargo home mortgage routinely hires a lawn service for vacant properties and inspects them on a monthly basis.

Ms. KATHY MENCIA (Wells Fargo): Basically we want to be a good neighbor. It also keeps the property in better repair, keeps it from deteriorating, keeps our neighbors happy...

HORSLEY: But other lenders are not so conscientious. Code enforcement manager Leaper recalls talking to lenders at one of their annual meetings.

Mr. LEVER: They said, Doug, what's the minimum we have to do? And I stood up and I pounded my fist on the table and got everybody's attention. I said, the minimum? All I want you to do is what you'd want done if it was next door to your house.

HORSLEY: Leaper knows that feeling. He's got a vacant house in his neighborhood, right around the corner from his own.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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