Day to Day's begun a series of stories we're calling The Bottom Line. In them, you'll hear about people in businesses and communities affected by these economic downturn times. Today, the housing market, falling home prices, and rising foreclosure rates.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Some of the worst foreclosure rates in the nation are in California's cities, Stockton, Riverside, Bakersfield, Sacramento. That means a lot of vacant homes and, with them, a lot of problems. KQED's Tamara Keith discovered some when she rode along with a Sacramento official who inspects foreclosed homes.
TAMARA KEITH: Thanks to foreclosures, Norcade Circle has become a pocket of urban decay. Of the 60 properties on this u-shaped block, 20 of them are in foreclosure. Code enforcement officer, Jose Mendez leads me to a trash-strewn alley behind a row of vacant brick and stucco fourplexes. All of these homes have been boarded up by the county to prevent transients, vandals, or thieves from getting in. Mendez approaches a doorway, and he doesn't like what he sees.
Mr. JOSE MENDEZ (Code Enforcement Officer, Sacramento): So this should have a lock on it, and it looks like somebody's already attempted to break in to it. You see how they've unscrewed this already, too. Actually, there you go. And just to go inside.
KEITH: Inside, the place is wrecked. The sheet rock has been ripped off the walls. Copper pipes for plumbing and electrical wires have been cut out by someone looking to make a profit on the valuable metal.
Mr. MENDEZ: There's evidence of someone - someone's staying here. You have clothes, usually you'll find a mattress. Sometimes you'll even find them sleeping in here.
KEITH: Well, it smells sort of like human waste here.
Mr. MENDEZ: Yes, it does, right. So they're probably defecating in here somewhere.
KEITH: Was this place livable at some point?
Mr. MENDEZ: At some point, it was. A lot of these actually look like they were nice places at some point.
KEITH: Next, Mendez and I drive to what is probably the worst neighborhood on his beat. A string of three blocks in a low income section of south Sacramento, where boarded windows are everywhere and residents are hard to find.
Mr. MENDEZ: That one's owned by the bank. That one's owned by the bank. That one's owned by the bank. And then it goes on to that one. So all of these here are owned by the bank or foreclosed on. There are issues, all kind of sub-standard issues inside.
KEITH: Mendez is still in the neighborhood when he gets a call from a Sacramento County Sheriff's deputy.
Mr. MENDEZ: Hey, Bob. What's going on?
KEITH: They meet up with three other officers at another foreclosed property. This time in the middle-class section of Sacramento. When the deputies burst inside, they find a man, a transient, barefoot and so intoxicated he can hardly talk. As he stands handcuffed in the living room, the man spits on the floor. There are food scraps and cigarettes scattered around, and signs of the family who used to live here. A child's room with decorations on the wall. A calendar hangs frozen in January, the month the home was turned over to the bank.
Mendez begins taking pictures and documenting code violations, so he can build a case for boarding up the house. Driving back to his office to file a report, Jose Mendez shares his frustrations.
Mr. MENDEZ: OK, so we board and secure these houses, and then what? You know, and then all that does is it's still blight because now you have people living next to boarded houses.
KEITH: It's code enforcement's job to make owners fix the broken windows and other health and safety violations, but it's a constant struggle. Mendez says, for the most part, the banks who own these boarded up and damaged properties don't seem willing or able to step up and take care of them.
Mr. MENDEZ: Unfortunately, with these foreclosures, nobody, nobody wants to deal with your issues. Nobody wants to deal with your requests.
KEITH: That's not how the banks see it. Dustin Hobbs, with the California Mortgage Bankers' Association, says lenders don't want blight to drive down property values, but he says they're stretched in every direction.
Mr. DUSTIN HOBBS (Spokesman, California Mortgage Banker's Association): The bottom line is, lenders are making an unprecedented effort to solve an unprecedented problem. The volume in homes that need attention and need to be resold that have been foreclosed on is at record level.
KEITH: And because of that, code enforcement officers like Jose Mendez are having a hard time keeping up. Before the housing crisis, he says there were maybe one or two complaints about vacant properties in a month. Now, in a very different housing market, it's as many as 10 a week. For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Sacramento.