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Blight, Vandalism, Squatters are Coming to Your Neighborhood

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Message Sandy Sand
Blight, vandalism, stagnant pools and squatters are simultaneous moving into neighborhoods across the country. Los Angeles is one example of -- not trickle-down -- but the "avalanche-down" effect of home foreclosures.

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Nobody's home: Northridge resident Israel Del Pino lives next door to this five-bedroom house in foreclosure. He and Michael McKenna, the neighbor on the other side, are worried about the swimming pool breeding mosquitoes that could carry the West Nile virus.
Untended properties become eyesores. Then there are the uninvited guests: mosquitoes, vandals and squatters, Los Angeles Times, 8/28/07.
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As if the country isn't in enough trouble with major issues for Congress to address, but they also have to do something about the glut of foreclosed houses across the country.

The unacceptable, quick-fix answer would be to bail out the greedy, unregulated hedge funds and lenders and/or the mortgagees.

The answer lies in swift regulation of the mortgage industry and an even swifter remedy to force lenders to renegotiate the foreclosed loans.

It would seem to make sense to allow those who are defaulting on their mortgages, to rent their homes from the lender until they can make other arrangements to re-fi their loans. Or, they could pay interest only at the original rate. The lender could half the original interest, tack the other half onto the principle owed without having it compound.

No expert in the mortgage industry, but several months ago when I noticed that Washington Mutual was raising my payment by $21 every month, no matter how much I paid them over the minimum amount due, I knew it was time to re-fi...yet again, after only two years.

The above suggestions are off the top of my head, but they seem logical. Maybe logic has nothing to do with anything, but it's illogical to turn the country into a third world country loaded down with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of stagnant properties that are literally making the entire country one huge, unsightly, costly litter box.

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The entire Los Angeles Times story:

Blight moves in after foreclosures

NOBODY'S HOME: Northridge resident Israel Del Pino lives next door to this five-bedroom house in foreclosure. He and Michael McKenna, the neighbor on the other side, are worried about the swimming pool breeding mosquitoes that could carry the West Nile virus.
Untended properties become eyesores. Then there are the uninvited guests: mosquitoes, vandals and squatters.

By David Streitfeld, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 28, 2007
Houses abandoned to foreclosure are beginning to breed trouble, adding neighbors to the growing ranks of victims.

Stagnant swimming pools spawn mosquitoes, which can carry the potentially deadly West Nile virus. Empty rooms lure squatters and vandals. And brown lawns and dead vegetation are creating eyesores in well-tended neighborhoods.

In Northridge, the house next door to Michael McKenna's was put on the market, sold and then foreclosed on, all in the space of a few months last spring.

With the five-bedroom home now forsaken and deserted, McKenna has been reluctantly cutting the lawn and dumping chemicals in the pool to kill the bugs.

"I resent having to do this," the former studio production manager said. "It's breaking my back."

More than 100 houses a day are being foreclosed on in Southern California, up from 13 a day last year. That's still a relative handful for such a populous area, but even the optimists predict that the problem will soon get much worse.

If the foreclosure trend continues on its current pace, experts warn, communities will need to act decisively to avoid blight.

"We know it's coming," said Tina Hess, the assistant Los Angeles city attorney who handles housing enforcement and problem properties.

Hess is proposing that the number of inspectors in L.A.'s vacant-building program be nearly doubled, from the current 15 to 27. Inspectors can order pools to be fenced and houses to be secured against trespassers.

Homeowners like McKenna, 47, and his friend Israel Del Pino, 54, who lives on the other side of the foreclosed property, are eager for stepped-up enforcement. Their efforts to contact an owner, lender or real estate agent responsible for the house have proved fruitless.

"We're getting the raw end of the deal here," McKenna said. "No one will take responsibility."

In another Los Angeles cul-de-sac, this one off Coldwater Canyon Drive near Beverly Hills, the neighbors have the opposite problem. Here's a foreclosed house that should be empty and isn't.

The mansion in question was bought by a man in early 2005 for $1.4 million. By last fall he was gone and the property was in foreclosure.

HSBC, a major lender that was carrying the biggest note on the house, asked Leo Nordine, a real estate agent who specializes in foreclosures, to represent it for sale.

Nordine went to check out the property and realized that people were living there. He left them a polite letter on the kitchen counter. There was no response to that letter, nor to follow-ups that he mailed.

Neighbors, who asked that their names not be used because they were worried about their safety, said the occupants were a group of men apparently in their 20s and 30s. The men take the trash out every week, but that was the only good thing the neighbors had to say.

Nordine said that HSBC was pursuing a formal eviction but that it would probably take many months. The HSBC manager in charge of the foreclosure didn't respond to questions.

On a recent evening, the front door was open. The inhabitants declined to respond to a reporter's queries.

Authorities and real estate agents say similar problems arose during the wave of foreclosures in the 1990s, when houses stayed empty for months.

Chris Ragsdale, the Los Angeles Police Department's senior lead officer for Westwood and Bel-Air, recalled one case from the end of that era, when a group of men moved into a foreclosed house in Pacific Palisades. The squatters changed the locks, turned on the electricity and brought in furniture. When the agent trying to sell the place showed up, they maintained that they had a lease.

"If you know what you're doing, you can get six months in a place with a kick-ass view," Ragsdale said.

That's because the police tend to take a pass if the case is more complicated than basic breaking and entering. For one thing, they can't be positive it's not a valid lease.

We're all liability-conscious," Ragsdale said. "It's a civil matter."

Paul Cargile, a Westchester foreclosure specialist, took over a South L.A. house a few months ago. When he sent his cleaning crew in to prepare it for sale, they found a woman living there. She produced a lease showing she had paid a man claiming to be the owner $1,600 in first month's rent and deposit.

Cargile gave her $2,000 to leave.

"It's easier than going to court," he said.

If squatters are a throwback to previous real estate downturns, the West Nile virus is new this time around. Standing water is a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes, which catch West Nile from infected birds and transmit it to humans. Seven state residents with West Nile have died this year.

Mosquito abatement programs around California are trying to cope with the wave of foreclosures, especially in outlying areas that have been hardest hit. The Antelope Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District said it treated 65 pools at vacant homes last month, up from 15 in July 2006.

"We used to have just one or two people doing pools," district spokeswoman LeannVerdick said.

"Now, all seven technicians and the field supervisor spend a lot of their time on them."

Worried that there are many green pools they don't know about, officials hired an aerial survey company this month. The surveyors identified 1,000 pools as "green," "half-empty," "murky" or "questionable."

Michael McKenna and Israel Del Pino can't figure out what to do about the neighbor's pool.

Property records show that the 3,200-square-foot house was sold in March for $860,000 to a man identified on property records as Pat Cheamsreesakul, who financed the entire sum with two loans. He filled the garage with his stuff but never moved in.

He apparently never paid the mortgage either, because by June 15 he was delinquent $19,050, records show, and his lender,GMAC Mortgage, had started foreclosure proceedings. GMAC declined to comment. Cheamsreesakul's whereabouts could not be determined.

In early July, the neighbors contacted the L.A. County Health Department about the pool, and the agency promptly sent out someone to look. He put a note on the front door asking the owner to contact the authorities.

"There is no owner," McKenna told the inspector. Or, at least, none that he could find.

The inspector also said he would refer the matter to the city Department of Building and Safety.

Weeks went by. Algae and bacteria began to grow in the pool, which turned green. Mosquitoes laid eggs, which hatched into larvae. If those critters fed on a bird infected with West Nile, they could transmit the disease.

McKenna took matters into his own hands, refilling the pool, turning on the filter and dumping in gallons of bleach and chlorine.

A few days later, a building inspector turned up. McKenna led him back through the gate to the pool. The inspector said he didn't see any evidence of mosquitoes, according to McKenna, and said he couldn't do anything about the house itself, because it was still secure from vandals.

Del Pino, meanwhile, called the local vector-control agency. Technicians arrived immediately, ready to treat the pool. But because McKenna had already treated it, there wasn't much to do. They said their policy was not to drain pools.

"People keep coming out, and I guess they're doing their job, but no one is really addressing the problem," McKenna said.

Los Angeles building department officials said inspectors were supposed to check out vacant properties within three working days. They had no explanation why it took three weeks.

But they also said the city had limited ability to help.

"Unless the house is open and vacant, and starting to collect trash and debris, there's nothing we can do," said Frank Bush, chief inspector for the L.A. Building and Safety Department's Code Enforcement Bureau.

As for the pool, "you can't drain for the sake of draining," said department spokesman Bob Steinbach. "It's the owner's responsibility."

The only solution, Del Pino said, is for the house to be sold to someone who will take care of it. But that, he feared, was going to take a long time.
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Sandy Sand began her writing career while raising three children and doing public relations work for Women's American ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training). That led to a job as a reporter for the San Fernando Valley Chronicle, a (more...)
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