Who’s responsible for ‘orphaned’ properties?
On Dec. 17 in a windowless Buffalo, N.Y., courtroom, Cindy T. Cooper, a prosecutor for the city, buzzes among a dozen men in suits, cutting deals. “You’ve got to unboard (the house), go in and clean it out,” she tells one. “If all the repairs are done quickly, I wouldn’t ask for any fines.” To another, she says, “The gutters weren’t done right,” and asks to see receipts for the work.
It’s “Bank Day” in Judge Henry J. Nowak’s housing courtroom, more typically a venue where landlords and tenants duke it out over evictions and back rent. Instead, Cooper is asking lawyers for CitiFinancial, JPMorgan Chase and Countrywide Financial to fix problems such as peeling paint, broken masonry and overgrown or trash-filled yards at houses the city says the banks are responsible for maintaining. It may be surprising to find these financial-services giants hauled before this obscure local tribunal. In fact, Cooper and Nowak are at the forefront of a pioneering effort to deal with a vexing problem: the surging number of vacant and abandoned homes resulting from the mortgage market meltdown. The vacancies occur when lenders bring foreclosure suits against delinquent borrowers. Mere notice that such an action might be filed often sends residents packing. In Buffalo and other Rust Belt cities, the problem has been particularly acute, because in many cases banks are abandoning the houses, too, after determining that their value is so low that it’s not worth laying claim to them. When city officials try to hold someone responsible for dilapidated properties, they often find the homeowner and bank pointing fingers at each other. Indeed, the houses fall into a kind of legal limbo that Cleveland housing attorney Kermit J. Lind calls “toxic title.” While formal ownership remains with a borrower who has fled, the bank retains its lien on the property. That opens up a dispute over who is responsible for taxes and maintenance. Even when lenders do complete the foreclosure, they may walk away from the property, leaving it to be taken by a city for unpaid taxes, a process that can take years. Orphaned properties quickly fall into disrepair, the deterioration sometimes hastened by vandals who trash the interiors, light fires and rip out wiring and pipes to sell for scrap. Squatters or drug dealers may move in.
The impact goes far beyond the defaulting homeowner, as neighbors and entire communities confront a spreading blight. Vacant residences deprive cities of tax revenue and can cost them thousands to maintain.