Did weak economy play strong role in crimes?

Foreclosures bought at auction prices may be lure to tenants who have something to hide

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Clark County’s depressed economy, vacant houses and glut of foreclosures likely played a key role in Thursday’s drug sting, according to a commander of the drug task force.

Authorities will investigate whether the owners of 56 single-family houses raided were participants in the Operation Gang Green marijuana-growing business. Some homes may have been unwittingly rented to the pot growers by homeowners-turned-landlords who decided to rent rather than sell them in Clark County’s falling real estate market.

Many houses were purchased in recent years at greatly reduced prices by investors at courthouse auctions. Some of those owners may have been involved in the crime ring, said Mike Cooke, commander of the Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force.

“It could simply be a matter of a depressed real estate market making a lot of homes attractive to people who want to use them as greenhouses,” he said.

But, Cooke said, “The other thing to look at with organized crime is, are these truly purchases being made on the open real estate market, or are they exchanges between people involved in the common scheme?”

He said investigators would check the history of sales transactions behind every property involved in the raid. Most appeared to be rentals.

No charges have been leveled against the property owners. About 18 live outside of Clark County, one as far away as Honolulu.

The Columbian’s attempts to contact those owners were, for the most part, unsuccessful, and those who were contacted asked that their names not be used for fear there would be repercussions. Four landlords said they had no idea their tenants were using their rentals as grow houses.

At least one landlord was connected to eight separate properties involved in the raid.

Another owner, who requested anonymity, said he had not bothered to check in on the tenants renting his two-story, three-bedroom Vancouver home.

“I had proof of the jobs they were doing; one was a landscaper, one worked at a catering company, and the son said he was a student,” the Vancouver-based landlord said.

A local real estate expert said it’s not uncommon for landlords to ignore their renters.

“As long as the rent checks come in, they don’t pay a lot of attention,” said Mike Lamb, a broker with Windermere Real Estate Stellar Group in Vancouver.

Lamb added that criminals probably wouldn’t make calls to their landlords, either.

“The people doing this are not going to complain,” he said. “They aren’t going to say, ‘Hey, my faucet is leaking.’”

Cooke said no decisions have been made whether to seize the homes involved in the pot-growing ring.

Most of the houses were rentals, which is not uncommon in Clark County, one of the highest-ranked for foreclosures among Washington’s 39 counties since late 2008.

Countywide, there were 855 houses in some stage of foreclosure during the three months ending in September, affecting one out of every 191 housing units, according to California-based RealtyTrac. In Washington state, one out of every 292 houses is in foreclosure.

According to online news stories, Washington’s Clark County isn’t the first high-foreclosure region to be affected by marijuana growers that take advantage of scores of empty houses and rentals.

In 2010, a large growing operation in Las Vegas turned 112 foreclosed homes into cannabis incubators, according to the Las Vegas Sun newspaper. Nevada’s home foreclosure rate is the nation’s highest, with one out of every 44 houses in some stage of foreclosure.