JACKI LYDEN, host:
Cities and towns around our country are struggling to cope with a growing number of abandoned homes. It's all part of the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis. In many cases, homeowners who couldn't afford their monthly payments faced foreclosure and moved out. The result: an epidemic of empty homes across the country that attracts crime and blights neighborhoods.
As NPR's Anthony Brooks reports, many cities are taking action.
ANTHONY BROOKS: Chesterfield Street in Boston is a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of modest single-family homes. Over the years, this has been a stable part of town but the mortgage crisis has taken a toll on this street as it has across the city. In 2006 about 200 Boston homes faced foreclosure. Last year that number soared to more than 700.
Mr. ROB CONSALVO (Councilo, Boston City): Well, this crisis is going to get worse before it gets better, and I hate to say that. It's sad to say that.
BROOKS: But it's true, according to Rob Consalvo. Consalvo is a Boston City councilman who represents this neighborhood. He's standing outside an empty house that's been boarded up and points to another one across the street.
Mr. CONSALVO: This is owned by some large bank or large financial institution. But they're nameless and they're faceless in our community. And so what happens is you have a series of code violations that pose very serious public safety and public health threats in the neighborhood.
BROOKS: In this case the building was left open and it quickly attracted vandals and drug users. A swimming pool was left full and unsecured. The hedges overgrew and blocked the sidewalk. When neighbors complained, Consalvo tried to find out who owned the property.
Mr. CONSALVO: On this property when I called that local bank they sent me to a Miami division because they said they handled foreclosures. And the Miami division sent me to Denver because they said they handle foreclosures. And Denver sent me to Toronto, Toronto sent me back to Boston saying they handle foreclosures and Boston basically said stop calling me because we don't handle foreclosures.
BROOKS: Consalvo says eventually the city had to come in to trim the hedges, drain and secure the pool and board up the house at a cost of about $1,700.
Mr. CONSALVO: The taxpayers shouldn't be footing the bill. The bank or the financial institution that owns this property should.
BROOKS: So Consalvo has sponsored a city ordinance to compel lending companies to register properties with the city as soon as they begin foreclosure proceedings. They have to pay $100 fee, maintain the homes until they're resold or face stiff fines. Cities and towns across the country are adopting similar initiatives and some are employing even tougher tactics.
This past week, for example, Buffalo, New York filed a $2-million suit against 36 mortgage companies, including some of the nation's biggest.
Ms. ALICIA LUCASHEVITZ(ph) (Attorney, Buffalo's Legal Office): I hope we actually can serve as a model for other cities, and this first lawsuit I have filed I hope is the first in a series of lawsuits that we will be bringing.
BROOKS: Alicia Lucashevitz is an attorney who heads Buffalo's legal office. She says the suit is seeking damages to cover the cost of demolition of dozens of abandoned properties. And she says more lawsuits will follow because Buffalo has some 10,000 vacant properties, many of them predating the mortgage crisis.
Ms. LUCASHEVITZ: I would say that vacant structures are a very serious problem affecting the city of Buffalo as well as other (unintelligible) communities. And this lawsuit is a way for us to make the banks take responsibility for the properties that have been abandoned, that they've played a role in that abandonment.
BROOKS: The suit was filed in state court but Buffalo has also been using its local housing court to compel companies like JPMorgan Chase and Countrywide Financial to fix up and maintain abandoned properties.
Marco Sarcone(ph) is a Buffalo attorney who has defended some of these mortgage companies. He says the real problem is that many borrowers are just walking away from their homes, and that in many cases a bank may have initiated foreclosure but not completed it so it doesn't even own the property.
Mr. MARCO SARCONE (Attorney): You're having the actual owners of the property who are running away from the property even though they still own it and passing the buck to the mortgage companies and the servicers. That doesn't justify, you know, a city forcing the mortgage company to come into housing court and to have to answer charges and face criminal proceedings when they don't even own the property.
BROOKS: Sarcone says that the mortgage companies own title to the properties then they should be responsible for their upkeep. But he says in most of the cases that he's handled they don't. Foreclosures take time and he says Buffalo was trying to saddle banks with an unfair burden. But the city disagrees and argues companies that hold the mortgages and initiate foreclosures are in effect the owners.
Back in Boston, city Councilman Rob Consalvo agrees and says he hopes that his ordinance will encourage lending institutions to take responsibility for abandoned properties so they can be fixed up, resold quickly and avoid urban blight.
Mr. CONSALVO: I think this ordinance is a preventative tool that forces banks and financial institutions to work with us. Certainly I would welcome stronger measures, whatever they are, I think we need anything and everything.
BROOKS: If his ordinance doesn't do the job, Consalvo said he'd consider following Buffalo's example and take the banks to court.
Anthony Brooks, NPR News, Boston.
LYDEN: Coming up, the woman who wore the mark of the scarlet letter. Was Hester Prynne a fallen woman or a feminist?
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